Hillary Clinton’s recent declaration of support for longer school years in disadvantaged communities has been met with a mixed response. In many ways it’s a tough position to take, risking the alienation of voters who might see the change as harmful or cruel to children. But there’s far more to it than a Grinch-like plot to steal the summers of under-performing students. Here’s what advocates on both sides are saying.
Summer Learning Loss
The phenomenon of summer learning loss, or “summer slide”, has been well-documented by researchers such as Entwisle, Alexander and Olson. They found that while elementary students from disadvantaged and affluent backgrounds made similar academic gains throughout the school year, over summer break the disadvantaged students stagnated or even lost ground while their middle-class peers continued to progress.
There are a number of proposed factors behind this summer learning disparity, all linked to the reduced means and opportunity of disadvantaged families:
- Middle-class parents tend to see themselves as partners in education, involving themselves in their children’s studies, while blue-collar parents are more likely to see education primarily as the role of the school.
- More affluent children will have access to greater resources – such as games, books and computers – allowing them to continue their learning over holidays.
- The above two factors help contribute to low-income parents having low educational expectations for their children, which has been shown to have a direct negative impact on cognitive growth.
Keeping the Faucet Flowing
Entwisle et al. envision the current educational system as a faucet that is kept running during school terms and turned off for the holidays. Without the means to support their own learning outside of school, disadvantaged students will continue to fall behind their more advantaged peers. One solution, then, is to give these students access to the resources they need – by extending both school days and school years.
Pilot programs for year-round schooling have already been implemented in a number of states, including Colorado, Massachusetts and New York. Later this year in Washington D.C., ten public schools in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods will be open year-round, with the aim of offering “students the equivalent of an extra year of schooling by the time they reach the eighth grade,” according to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser.
Better Days, Not Longer Days
Opponents of the proposed term extensions argue that there are better and less disruptive ways to improve student performance. New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina said that it’s the quality of class, rather than the length or frequency of it, that determines how much students will get out of their education.
Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, agrees. She believes schools should aim for a “better day” rather than a longer day, with teachers and students being provided the in-class resources they need to succeed. The implementation of longer school days and school years has been problematic for many teachers, threatening to put extra strain on already-overloaded schedules – often without the opportunity for proper negotiations.
Let Kids Be Kids
Save Our Summers is a parent-run organisation with branches in a number of states. They seek to maintain the traditional school calendar, placing value on a childhood spent outside the classroom and in the company of family. One of the group’s core beliefs is that extended school hours place too much emphasis on test results and not enough on academic achievement – which is less measurable and therefore less politically useful.
The group argues that longer school years cut into precious family and vacation time, and don’t give children enough time to unwind between terms. But the issue isn’t as clear-cut as that, with many parents from working families grateful not to have to find full-time care for their children three months of the year.
A Farewell to Summer?
Teachers may not need to farewell their summers just yet – but with ever-increasing debate around the issue, and mounting pressure from both sides, it looks like the days of the traditional school calendar might be numbered.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.