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Will longer school year help or hurt U.S. students?

The National Center on Time & Learning has estimated that about 1,000 districts have adopted longer school days or years.

Students might get their wish of more holiday time from school off under proposals catching on around the country to lengthen the school year calendar. But there’s a catch: a much shorter summer vacation.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a chief proponent of the longer school year, says American students have fallen behind the world academically.

“Whether educators have more time to enrich instruction or students have more time to learn how to play an instrument and write computer code, adding meaningful in-school hours is a critical investment that better prepares children to be successful in the 21st century,” he said in December when five states announced they would add at least 300 hours to the school year calendar in some schools beginning this year.

The three-year pilot project will affect about 20,000 students in 40 schools in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Tennessee.

Proponents argue that too much knowledge is lost while American kids wile away the summer months apart from their lessons. The National Summer Learning Association cites decades of research that shows students’ test scores are higher in the same subjects at the beginning of the summer than at the end.

“The research is very clear about that,” said Charles Ballinger, executive director emeritus of the National Association for Year-Round School in San Diego. “The only ones who don’t lose are the upper 10 to 15 percent of the student body. Those tend to be gifted, college-bound, they’re natural learners who will learn wherever they are.”

Supporters also say a longer school year would give poor children more access to school-provided healthy meals.

Yet the movement has plenty of detractors—so many that Ballinger sometimes feels like the Grinch trying to steal Christmas.

(Next page: Exploring both sides of the debate in more detail)

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