Education Opinion

A Better Academic Calendar

By Walt Gardner — August 10, 2012 1 min read
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In the belief that a longer school year will result in more learning, a few public schools are extending their calendar beyond the typical 180 days (“To Increase Learning Time, Some Schools Add Days to Academic Year,” The New York Times, Aug. 6). I understand the rationale for the change, but I submit that it’s more effective to rework the existing schedule. Specifically I recommend breaking up the time spent in school so that students get more frequent but shorter breaks than at present.

I base my case on the principle of diminishing returns. In economics, it means that after a certain point, the utility of any unit lessens as the unit is increased. So if adding ten days results in better student performance, then why not add 20 days? The answer is that the principle of diminishing returns kicks in. I vividly remember how little students learned in June as the school year wound down. They were as exhausted as I was. Why would reformers believe that would change under their proposal?

I think it’s more efficient - and humane - to run schools year round, as long as students and teachers are given proper rest. This goal can be achieved by dividing up the year so that there would be, say, 6 weeks of instruction followed by, say, two weeks off. Distributed learning, in general, has proved to be a better option than massed learning. Consider what’s happening right now under a traditional calendar. Most parents and their children have had enough vacation. Wouldn’t it be better for all if the time were allotted differently?

I realize that my recommendation will meet with resistance from many parents who are accustomed to the traditional long summer vacation. But I don’t think we have the luxury of retaining this anachronism (“School holidays are a pointless relic of the past,” The Telegraph, Feb. 2). If parents can be convinced to try the new calendar, they may be surprised at how much more their children learn and how much differently they view school in general.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.