Old school

Sep 8, 2017 By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

The long-standing school calendar in use by Fremont County, Wyoming, and the overwhelming majority of the nation was conceived nearly two centuries ago in order to accommodate the requirements of the family farm. It's not that every student was from a farm family, but there were so many that public school couldn't function well unless the farm kids were there - and they couldn't be there in the summer.

Generations later, lots of education leaders believe it is time for that calendar to change - and School District 25 in Riverton is taking a long look at it.

Virtually everyone reading these words spent 12 years or more of his or her life starting school in late summer, getting a couple days off around Thanksgiving and Easter, taking a two-week break at Christmas, and perhaps a few more days in the spring. School finished around Memorial Day, and there was a three-month summer break.

For a long time, many school districts took a fall "harvest break" as well. Perhaps some still do.

Agriculture is still a huge and vital part of the American economy, but nowadays there are many more students who don't come from farm families than those who do, and farm operations have changed as well. Increasingly, education leaders think the school calendar no longer needs to be based on the ag schedule.

Primarily, it's because of widespread recognition that the three-month summer break from school slows the process of education. Ask any public school teacher. You'll hear that the best time of the year, education-wise, is the spring. Winter is over, the kids are accustomed to school, there has been an uninterrupted stretch of teaching and learning, lots of progress has been made since the fall, and most of the students are performing at their best.

And then it all stops.

Ask that same teacher about the start of school in late August. Almost invariably, you'll hear that a sizable percentage of what the students knew when school let out the previous May has become at least a little fuzzy, or worse, over the summer. For many teachers, September is a month not of new learning but of back-tracking.

This is not a radical discovery. It's been recognized for a long time. Teachers say they often notice some regression even after a long weekend.

Education is a well-measured activity. Students, teachers, schools and districts are evaluated, charted, audited and analyzed for performance. They are compared to one another from the classroom level to the global level. And, troublingly, American students don't perform so well against kids in other educated nations. We like to think of ourselves as being the best, but U.S. students are more like the middle of the pack in education achievement.

And what do these nations outperforming us in the classroom do that we don't? In many cases, one answer is obvious: They go to school year-round. They start learning and keep learning. They spend more time advancing and less time looking backward. What is learned is remembered, because it is not interrupted.

In "Outliers," author Malcolm Gladwell took a deep dive into the differences in school performance between nations that had year-round school and the United States. The statistics were striking. The all-year students outperformed the summer-break students again and again and again.

Locally, a recent survey of School District 25 educators found support for a school calendar that did away with the long summer break. In general terms, the idea being considered wouldn't necessarily add many more days of actual classroom time. Instead, it would spread breaks out more evenly across the year. For example, school might start aroundAug. 1and continue until late June. The longest break would be about 30 days instead of 90. There would be shorter but more frequent breaks of a week or so throughout the year.

Students who participated in sports and other activities could take Fridays off with less chance of missing important learning days, which would help more of them stay academically eligible to participate in their outside activities. Students who eat most of their meals at school would receive more consistent nutrition year-round.

No decisions on changing the school calendar have been made. There would be lots of public discussion before big changes were made. But the increasing recognition among teachers, administrators, school board members and school families of the value of a steadier school schedule means that an augmented calendar is more likely to be given a chance. Given the data, it's hard to argue against it.

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