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Learning from an Experiment in Year-Round Schooling: The Importance of Context in School Reform

obriena's picture

We’ve all heard about summer learning loss. Students lose between one and two months' worth of academic knowledge each summer. Low-income students are particularly sensitive to this phenomenon – some research suggests that more than half of the achievement gap seen in reading between these students and their wealthier peers can be attributed to summer loss.

So across the nation, schools, districts and states are trying to address the issue. One seemingly obvious solution: A move to year-round schooling. Given that the most popular school calendar in the nation is a relic from our agrarian days, when children were needed in the fields at specific times during the year, it certainly makes sense to revisit it. And many schools and communities have adopted a year-round calendar, replacing a long summer break with shorter breaks throughout the year.

But I was interested to read an article out of Grand Rapids, MI, that indicated a possible move in the opposite direction. Because of chronic absences at some district elementary schools that run on a year-round calendar (at one school, 41% of the building’s population first reported to school after Labor Day, having missed nearly a month of school) combined with academic performance at the schools not improving as expected, the school board is considering a return to a traditional calendar. As board member Maureen Slade put it, “If they (year-round schools) are not working for children, we shouldn’t have them.”

In many ways, I like Slade’s attitude and wish that more education reformers shared it. When an educational reform isn’t working for kids, we need to reassess it. Perhaps that means getting rid of a program that a district has invested in. Perhaps it means tweaking implementation. But it certainly needs to mean something.

Yet given the research around year-round schooling, I was surprised that this community has struggled so much with it. While the research doesn’t show conclusively that there are benefits to this type of calendar, evidence suggests that it has the greatest potential to benefit low-income students. And in looking at the demographics of the schools in Grand Rapids considering a return to a traditional calendar, I learned that all serve a population where 95% or more of students receive free or reduced price lunch (according to greatschools.org). It seems like year-round schooling would be a sound reform to implement.

But in reading the comments to this piece, I get a sense of what the problem might be. Those who participated in the conversation seem to support the idea of year-round schooling. So what went wrong? According to many of the commenters, it was implementation. They seem to feel that the reform was forced on schools without input from the families served; that it was a strategy reserved for only some schools (and not open to all children who would have been interested in participating); that school or district officials could do more to figure out why student attendance is suffering; and that the superintendent who imposed the policy was not popular, which might have doomed the program’s success.

So what can be learned from this example? Once again, that context and implementation matter in school reform. Simply bringing in a new policy, regardless of whether evidence supports it, won’t fix anything. There is no silver bullet to improving student outcomes. Successful implementation is hard work. And if those charged with implementing the policy don’t take the time to secure the buy-in of those most impacted, it will fail.

Image by goofup (tractor1) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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