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Year Round School Debate: Is a Longer School Year the Answer to America’s Education Woes?

To certain parties, the idea of adding more days to the academic calendar may be highly unpopular. Few students would willingly give up the freedom of a lengthy summer vacation. Many teachers also rely on this time to plan for the upcoming school year and take a much-needed deep breath.

Nonetheless, schools nationwide are finding that the benefits of such a plan outweigh the inconveniences. The National Center on Time & Learning, a non-profit research group based in Boston, hosts a database of the nation’s schools and the length of their school year. Today, more than 170 schools have moved to 190-plus-day school years, as compared to the typical 180-day year.

Who wins with a longer school year?

To many school administrators, parents and elected officials, these benefits are clear and present. With the United States lagging in academic performance globally and many schools struggling to meet stringent standardized testing requirements, more time in the classroom seems to be a reasonable solution.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan points to other countries for inspiration. “Right now, children in India, children in China and other places, they’re going to school 30, 35 days more than our students,” said Duncan at a round table discussion in 2011. The argument is that, without these extra days of learning, our students could continue to struggle to compete on a global scale.

Many education advocates also argue that the only way to narrow the achievement gap between high- and low-income students is to get students from low-income districts in the classroom more often. Because they are more likely to live in households where reading and learning are not fostered, lengthy summer vacations may lead to low-income students forgetting a good deal more of the material they learned the year before. This sentiment is echoed in a report published by the National Association for Year Round Education(NAYRE), an organization dedicated to improving education through alternative schedules.

According to The New York Times, some strong evidence points to the usefulness of a lengthened school year. When Jeffrey Smith, superintendent of the Balsz district in Arizona, arrived in 2008, two of the five schools had been rated under performing for years. “Since 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,” writes Motoko Rich. The district is no longer on the verge of being taken over by the state, and some a crediting the lengthened school year.

Who loses?

Many politicians, including President Obama, have long advocated increasing the amount of time students spend in the classroom. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pushed the city’s board of education to take steps toward increasing the school year, despite complaints from teachers that this would lead to student burnout and a drop in staff morale.

In March, the city school board unanimously approved Emanuel’s plan to increase the year to 190 days. Teacher’s unions leaped into action, picketing and calling for strikes if the plan was not repealed. Without appropriate compensation, Chicago teachers' jobs would fundamentally change with 10 days added and multiple holidays removed.

What is more, Emanuel and the teachers unions only recently came to an agreement regarding the extended length of the school day. Emanuel agreed to hire 477 new teachers citywide in order to add enrichment courses and compensate for the potential to overwork existing faculty members. This agreement does not include the raises that the unions continue to push for.

In this case and many others, there is also the question of how the cost of this lengthening will be covered. With Chicago facing a $655 million deficit, and an estimated cost of $50 million in salaries for the new teachers, it is unclear how the city will pull off such an expansion.Additionally, many districts have been forced to cut back to 180-day schedules after coming under financial setbacks. Parkside Elementary in Coral Springs, Fla., tried a 200-day calendar for one year before abandoning it because of insufficient financing, according to the Times.

Many districts that propose a longer school year are asked to conduct a study to reveal the usefulness of such an undertaking. To critics, giving schools that are already failing more time with students seems to miss the mark.

Who is right?

Though there is circumstantial evidence that points to a lengthened school year being a positive step, many districts are still struggling to weigh their options. Do increased costs and lower morale outweigh higher performance? How will teachers and students respond to these changes? Is this method missing the true issue with U.S. education?

Until further evidence points to lengthening the school year, the debate will continue. As the trend moves more to increased classroom time, more information could arrive quickly. What do you think the right move is?