Year Round Education: Examining the Argument for Nationwide Implementation

Year-Round Education: Examining the Argument for Nationwide Implementation

Academic Performance

Academic performance is an important measure of the validity of any school model simply because it is considered by many to be a primary function of schools. Thus it is a highly important factor to consider when comparing year-round schools to traditional schools. We surveyed the websites of proponents of the year-round school calendar, such as the National Association for Year-Round Schools (NAYRE), and these groups generally point out three ways they see year-round schools having an academic advantage over traditional schools. They argue that year-round schools will increase academic performance by reducing crowding, reducing summer learning loss, and providing more support for low socio-economic status (SES) students.

Proponents like NAYRE argue that year-round schools will boost academic achievement by simply reducing over-crowding which would lead to more teacher attention and thus higher achievement. Although this is a valid argument, it is not really related directly to the change in calendar but more to the method of reducing class size in the most cost effective manner. Thus this has more to do with whether multi-track year-round schooling is more cost effective in reducing class size than building additional schools, even though the argument relates to academics. With that in mind this argument can be relegated to the discussion of the cost effectiveness of year-round schooling.

Supporters of year-round education, as it is evident from the study by Cooper (1996), see summer learning loss as a major weakness in the traditional calendar. Summer learning loss refers to the amount of knowledge students forget during the three month summer vacation. The existence of summer learning loss is supported by a study that found that students usually return to school having forgotten about a month worth of learning, learning which has to be reviewed in the classroom (Cooper, 1996). This study combined the data of thirteen studies that looked at the effect summer vacation has on student standardized test scores and the integration of these studies showed that students lost approximately a month of instruction.
The year-round calendar, it is argued by groups like NAYRE, removes this weakness by spreading out vacation time more evenly. This is the major argument behind their contention that year-round schooling will result in increased academic achievement. If this is true, then there will be research that supports this claim, but as it turns out that is not really the case.

Findings published in the recent study by McMillen (2001) show that there is no practical academic gain from moving to a year-round calendar. In a study looking at two years of math and reading data from 345,000 North Carolina students in grades 3 through 8 found that there was no difference between traditional and year-round schools in academic achievement (McMillen, 2001). This finding is corroborated by a study by von Hippel (2007) that looked at achievement trends in comparable traditional and year-round schools. This study found that students did indeed experience accelerated summer learning but by moving around vacation time they merely spread out the times when student learning slowed (von Hippel, 2007). The graphs in the von Hippel study are especially illuminating because they clearly show trends in student learning at each type of school. In these graphs student learning at year-round schools has a more consistent rate of increase while traditional calendar schools have higher increases while in session but have a fall off during summer vacation. Thus whatever gains were made by students in the year-round schools over summer vacation were lost during the other nine months. In other words both traditional and year-round schools experience similar amounts of vacation learning loss with the difference being when it occurs.
This conclusion is further supported by professor of psychology Randall Engle, currently of the Georgia Institute of Technology and specialist in human memory. He found that children forget everything they are going to forget within three weeks of the end of classes (The State, 1992). Thus, students are having their forgetting spread over the year instead of just during summer which is what we see in the research and is reflected in the graphs in von Hippel’s 2007 study of traditional and year-round schools.

From this research the strong indication is that there is no academic benefit to the general student population for switching to year-round schooling. Summer learning loss exists but rearranging the calendar merely moves around the opportunities students have to forget lessons and results in virtually identical academic results. It is also significant to note that there is no negative effect on academic achievement either, so this is not an argument against year-round education. It just means that academic achievement of the general population is neutral in this debate, neither counting for or against instituting year-round schools.

There is still the final academic achievement argument made by the proponents of year-round schooling that year round schooling will have a positive effect on low socio-economic status students in particular. This idea is related to the summer learning loss argument in that they argue that low SES students tend to have more limited educational opportunities during summer breaks than high SES students and that this leads to an achievement gap over time. A study by Alexander (2007) examined this argument and concluded that a low SES- high SES achievement gap does indeed exist and that it is strongly related to losses during summer vacations (Alexander, 2007). This does not mean that the solution is year-round schooling because the cause of the gap is the lack of learning opportunity in their home environments and not the length of the vacation (von Hippel, 2007). As further discussed in the above mentioned von Hippel study that looked at year round trends in achievement, the achievement gap is directly related to time spent outside the school environment, indicating that merely moving around the school days will have no effect on reducing the gap (von Hippel, 2007). Campbell (1994) in his study that specifically researched year-round schooling in terms of outcomes for at-risk elementary students found that despite the perception of improved academic achievement by students, parents, and administrators there was no significant difference in student scores as compared to the traditional calendar (Campbell, 1994). This research supports the conclusion from von Hippel’s 2007 study that showed a statistically significant but a practically insignificant difference in achievement. This implies that low SES students receive little to no gains from year-round schooling because it only rearranges days instead of adding days.

In terms of academic achievement the conclusion is that there is no support for or against year-round schooling. Our research has found no evidence that switching to year-round schooling will result in any gains in academic achievement for students, including low-SES students, and that it is not a sufficient argument for implementing a change such as this. We also found no evidence that would indicate that there is an academic advantage to traditional schools. The studies we found indicate that the arguments by groups such as NAYRE in support of the year-round calendar are not supported by research. Rearranging the calendar appears to do virtually nothing to student academic achievement and thus cannot be used as an argument for mandating that all schools be either traditional or year-round.

Economic Efficiency

Cost is an important factor to consider, especially in light of recent nationwide economic troubles. When making any change to the educational system it is imperative to consider the budgetary implications of the change to make sure the community and school system can afford it. If it can be shown that the year-round calendar is more cost effective than the traditional calendar it would be a major factor in supporting a move to this system. Supporters of year-round education, such as the NAYRE and related groups, argue that schools using a multi-track year-round calendar will result in savings because it will relieve the need to build new schools. Additionally they argue that it is a more effective use of school facilities that are unused for large portions of each year. Those in opposition point out that year round schooling will incur higher costs in the form of increased wear on school infrastructure, year round operating costs, and implementation costs that will cost more in the long run than what is saved by not having to pay for a new school. Unfortunately it is exceedingly difficult to get a clear picture of the cost effectiveness of year-round schooling as compared to the traditional calendar because of significant differences between the economic environments of different schools across the country. What might be a cost effective approach for one school might not be for another. This must be kept in mind when considering the arguments.

The proponents of year-round schooling primarily argue that there will be cost savings from not having to build new schools to deal with overcrowding. A study by Bradford (1995) of multi-track year-round schools found that multi-track schools broke even with traditional schools once they reached 116% of the school’s normal capacity and starting seeing significant savings once they reached 120%. This does imply that there is some support for the argument that multi-track schools are a valid solution to overcrowding without having to incur the cost of building an additional school. It is also important that this only applies to schools experiencing overcrowding and the multi-track system. It is also noteworthy that 120% is the maximum capacity of the multi-track system before overcrowding occurs within it and again creates the need for a solution to overcrowding. This means that this in not really an argument that supports changing to year-round schooling unless the school is in this particular situation. A study by Shields (1996) in British Columbia found that there was no savings associated with a single track program. The potential for cost savings with a multi-track year-round program to deal with overcrowding is also supported by another study by Quinlan (1987) in California. In it important to note that this study also said that this saving did not apply to all schools. Schools without overcrowding and very small schools among others were considered unlikely to experience savings. What these studies indicate is that there may be some circumstances where multi-track year-round education is a good choice in terms of cost savings but that there are definitely occasions where it will not result in cost savings.

To address the other arguments is very difficult. Yes, some schools may not utilize school facilities effectively but those that do will run into difficulty with scheduling under a year-round program. On the one hand, a multi-track program may be more cost effective than building a new school in one district, but in another district the increased wear may mean that a new school would be a more effective option. Program implementation costs such as studies, administrative planning, and teacher training vary from modest to very expensive (Inger, 1994) Differences in local environmental conditions such as 110 degree summer days in the south western US can result in higher operating cost than areas with more temperate conditions.

There are many studies by school districts that have considered changing to a year-round calendar and some have concluded it was cost effective and others have concluded that it isn’t. There are also some cases where it was implemented and later found to be a mistake. For example a Glass (1992) study found that the Pajaro Valley School District in California had a 4.1 percent per student cost reduction and a Brekke (1992) study of the Oxnard Unified School District of California found a 5.5 percent per student savings under a year-round calendar. These areas experienced a large increase in students and the switch to a multitrack year-round calendar was cost effective at the time of these studies.

On the other hand the Nye County School District in Nevada found that their year-round multitrack calendar was costing $740,000 more than the traditional calendar each year (Pahrump Valley Times, 2000). In another example a Florida task force found that “the savings in facilities cost deriving from modified calendars is relatively small, and indeed very likely exceeded by increased operational costs.” (Baltimore Sun, 1995) These two examples run counter to the two previous examples supporting the year-round calendar. These are representative of the studies done across the country and show that some places may find the year-round calendar to be a cost effective option and other may not and it depends on the conditions in that district.
Because of the difficulty with research coming to a consistent result across the US, the implication is that the cost effectiveness of year-round schooling depends almost entirely on the local conditions where it is being considered. It is reasonable to conclude that there are specific circumstances where year-round schooling is cost effective such as a multi-track program to deal with overcrowding but that it is not the solution for every community. In terms of economics, the year-round calendar should be implemented on a case by case basis because of these local differences. Thus one can conclude that this means a national implementation of year-round schooling system would result in increased costs for a significant number of schools and should be considered a reason not to implement a nationwide year-round schooling calendar.

Conclusion

In order to reach a conclusion as to whether some type of year-round calendar will be beneficial if implemented nationwide we must look at what we found in terms of academics, economics, community, family/child, and teachers/administration. Based on the research we found, students would not lose or gain anything academically by switching to a year-round calendar. It would thus be fair to say that this does not represent a barrier to moving to a year-round calendar nationwide nor does it create an impetus for doing so.

The research we found dealing with the economic factors involved in year-round education indicated that the economic viability of year-round education was almost entirely dependent on local conditions. This would imply that, in terms of economic factors, the decision for a traditional or a year-round calendar should be made on a school by school or a district by district basis. This is an argument against the nationwide implementation of any calendar, including a year-round one.

Our research on both the child and family and the teachers and administration was mixed but we believe the indication is that children and families benefit most from consistency. The majority of conflict with the year-round schedule in these two areas comes from the fact that it is competing with the traditional schedule. This means that the problems would be alleviated with a larger scale of implementation. This technically supports nationwide implementation of one calendar, but it does not necessarily have to be the year-round education calendar. This also creates conflict with the economic findings which support having the decision made on a case by case basis.

The research on the effects of year-round calendars on the community is admittedly sparse and as such it is difficult to come to a solid conclusion. The studies that were found show both positive and negative effects that would come from a switch to a year-round calendar. Our conclusion is that the level of disruption to the community is sufficient enough to argue against nationwide implementation, at least until more thorough research is conducted showing otherwise.

Our conclusion after investigating these different areas is that the current research does not sufficiently support a nationwide implementation of a year-round calendar. The economic and community factors are the biggest obstacles to nationwide implementation. The research supports selecting calendars on a case by case basis because of economic factors which precludes a nationwide implementation. The disruptive and more negative effect on the community stands in opposition to using a year-round calendar in general. The neutral effect on academic achievement and the weak support for broader implementation of some calendar from the remaining two areas are insufficient to overcome these obstacles. Some limitations of our study were that not enough credible research was available and a good majority of the research we found was biased. One of the studies we found pointed out that many of the "... studies that do exist are challenged repeatedly for being weakly designed” (Cuban, 2008). The limited accurate and credible research in several areas we surveyed made it hard to find a concrete answer to the question of whether or not year-round education is defensible as a system that should be implemented nationwide.

Recommendations

In light of the sporadic and generally weak research available concerning year-round education we believe that there needs to be a comprehensive study of the viability of year-round education. The majority of the research available is from the mid to late 1970’s and the early 1990’s with a handful from the last few years. This intermittent interest in the issue of year-round calendars is unacceptable when considering nationwide implementation.
We believe that the research should focus most on the economics, community, and family/child issues because these are currently the most in need of additional research although all areas could use more investigation.