How Long Should The School Year Be?

A typical public school calendar is 180 days, but the number of school districts are adding about a month to the academic year making the school year 200 days.

According to the National Center on Time and Learning, about 170 schools — more than 140 of them charter schools — across the country have extended their calendars in recent years to 190 days or longer.

A growing group of education advocates is agitating for more time in schools, arguing that low-income children in particular need more time to catch up as schools face increasing pressure to improve student test scores.

Education advocates have been calling for more school time at least since the 1983 “Nation at Risk” report presented an apocalyptic vision of American education.  Teachers’ unions, parents who want to preserve summers for family vacations and those who worry that children already come under too much academic stress argue that extended school time is not the answer. Research on longer school days or years also shows mixed results. But studies also show that during the summer break, students — particularly those from low-income families — tend to forget what they learned in the school year. Getting back to school early, supporters of a longer calendar say, is one of the best ways to narrow an achievement gap between rich and poor students.

Many charter schools, including those in the academically successful KIPP network, attribute their achievement in part to longer days and calendars. President Obama has repeatedly promoted expanded school time.

Within the last two years, both the Ford Foundation and the Wallace Foundation have made multimillion dollar commitments to help nonprofit groups work with school districts to restructure the school day and year.
Last year, legislators in Arkansas and New Mexico introduced bills to institute a 200-day school calendar, but both stalled. In Iowa, after Gov. Terry E. Branstad discussed the possibility of lengthening the school year at several town-hall-style meetings, protesters prompted the state to convene a study group to examine the issue.

Advocates say that schools need to plan carefully how they will use the extra time. Some say that adding the kinds of art, music and other activities that more affluent students typically get outside school is as important as beefing up academics. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the teachers’ union have been battling over his plan to lengthen the school day; an agreement was reached last month when the school district agreed to hire back teachers for more enrichment programs rather than simply forcing classroom teachers to work longer hours.

Many parents support the initiative, some teachers resisted, worried that they would not receive enough extra pay to compensate for the additional time. The school board voted in 2009 to extend the year, and with the additional state financing and a local property tax increase, the district raised teacher salaries by 9 percent.

In one school district,  the district transitioned to the longer calendar, the proportion of students passing state reading tests has gone to 65 percent from 51 percent, and math scores are also improving. Some teachers say that it is a new curriculum, targeted tutoring and two hours of professional development a week, as much as the extra days, that have helped raise achievement. The district has lost several teachers since the longer school year began. At Griffith, Alexis Wilson, the principal, said 10 out of 23 classroom teachers retired or resigned last year, some citing the 200-day schedule. The shorter summer break seemed to help the students adjust quickly to being back in school.