Why does the American public school system adhere to a 180 day calendar? Why do high school students begin their day earlier than elementary students? Can changes to the school day and calendar effect substantial changes in academic outcomes?
When America was an agrarian-based economy centuries ago, children were expected to work on the family farms. Therefore, closing schools in the summer was a practical consideration. However, our current technological society no longer expects school children to work in the fields during the summer recess. Rather, it requires that our citizens be highly educated if they are to contribute effectively. Yet the educational system clings to an archaic calendar.
Changing the school calendar could have a beneficial effect on learning. American students spend less time in school than those in most other technological societies. The world’s average is 200 to 220 days per year, and Japan’s is 243. A study entitled, “Improving Student Achievement by Extending School: Is It Just a Matter of Time?” proposes that “increasing the school year nationally to 200 days would cost between $34.4 billion and $41.9 billion annually.” However, alternative approaches to the school year exist that may reduce some of the costs. According to Education World, “Whether it be a four-day school week, trimester schedules, year-round school, extending learning time, or delaying starting times for secondary schools based on the latest research about teenagers’ sleeping and waking behaviors, there are more options for school calendars than ever before.”
Some school districts are already experimenting with year-round calendars. Students attend for the same number of days but have shorter vacations. For example, students can attend school for forty-five days, followed by a three week break all year round. If the student body is divided into thirds, two-thirds occupy the school building at any time, thus reducing overcrowding. Another possibility is establishing a four-day school week with longer days. The Education World study maintains that “Supporters of year-round schooling say it relieves overcrowding, avoids summer learning loss, reduces a parent’s child-care burdens, and keeps bored kids off the streets. Slower children, those with learning disabilities or emotional problems, and those whose first language isn’t English especially benefit from shorter breaks.”
Some educators are making changes to the school day to align with students’ sleeping and waking patterns. Scientific studies indicate that adolescents and teens actually operate on a different time zone from younger children and adults. They stay awake later but still require about nine hours of sleep. So awakening before dawn to begin classes early in the morning actually interferes with learning for many students. A few school districts have heeded this information by placing middle and high schools on later schedules: they start and end later than elementary schools.

Of course, impediments to such school changes exist, including restrictions from teachers’ unions. In addition, alternate calendars would affect not only students and teachers, but parents and businesses as well. But while change is often disruptive, it can also be quite positive. Now is an appropriate time to implement such alternatives to allow a more productive educational system in the future.

e-mail address is:laura@handleeducation.com