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So Long, Summer? Babble.com

So Long, Summer?

The “modified school year” may mean twelve months of classes.

by Jeanne Sager

August 24, 2009

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Arne Duncan wasn’t the new Secretary of the Department of Education long before he started talking big change for America’s kids. The former CEO of the third largest school district in the nation, the Chicago Public Schools, wants to say goodbye to the school year as we know it.

A modified calendar is supposed to make our kids more competitive on a global scale, better able to compete with the likes of India (where the school year runs from April to March) and New Zealand (where law requires schools be open a minimum of at least 380 half-days, so 190 of what we would consider full school days).

The fixation on how they do things beyond our borders is coming straight from the top. Addressing Congress in February, President Barack Obama said, “In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity – it is a prerequisite.”

As far as Duncan’s concerned, a good education means more time in school, be it longer days, weeks or the so-called year-round schools (which is a bit of a misnomer – even those schools currently following a “year-round” program incorporate breaks for both students and staff).

He’s building on ideas bandied about by educators for decades. A 1994 report, “Prisoners of Time,” by the National Education Commission on Time and Learning, posited changing the traditional school calendar would increase student achievement. In 2003, a University of Missouri study published in the Review of Educational Research pushed for reducing the length of the summer break – based on enhanced student achievement for kids with a year-round calendar.

Considering today’s climate – both literal and economic – with schools looking to cut costs, it would seem less school would be the way to go, not more. But Duncan’s plan has curried favor with administrators and teachers alike, and parents – some, anyway – are climbing on board.

The Oakridge School District in rural Oakridge, Oregon, will begin its first year with a modified calendar in the fall. The kids in Oakridge will no longer attend school five days a week but four. In essence, they’ll attend school fewer days, but with the instructional time of each day spent in the classroom elongated to get better value out of the day of instruction. A “Bronze Medal” award winner from U.S. News and World Report‘s list of the nation’s best high schools, school staff wanted to do even better. So Superintendent Donald Kordosky took a ride to another Oregon district, Corbett, that had won the Gold Medal ranking.

“The superintendent up there was sold on the four-day week as a way to improve education, not save money (among too many other ‘eureka’ ideas to mention here),” Kordosky explained.

Kordosky was suspicious at first, but he couldn’t deny the results. He thought altering the school calendar would mean less time for education – and how could that be good for students? But the research, he said, spoke for itself: decrease in teacher absenteeism (having the teacher in the classroom instead of a sub improves academic performance of students) and student discipline and an increase in student attendance, engagement and academic rigor. Perhaps more importantly, in almost every case Kordosky found, academic performance increased.

Then came the math equations: “Even though we were on a five-day calendar, in reality, we were not,” Kordosky explained. “Of the thirty-six weeks of school [in 2008-09], there were seven weeks with only four days, three weeks with only three and a half days, three weeks with only three days, and three weeks with only two and a half days.”

By bringing every week to four days and increasing the length of the school day, kids in Oakridge will spend more time inside a classroom being actively taught by teachers.

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