It’s the middle of summer — should your child be in school? In some boards, including a handful in Greater Toronto, children are in class instead of on vacation.
|Joel Weiss of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto.|
What is year-round schooling? Does it help children learn, and retain what they’ve learned, better than the traditional school calendar?
The Star asked Joel Weiss, an expert on the topic, about the strengths and weaknesses of a modified school calendar. Weiss is a retired faculty member of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and is now a Senior Fellow at the Knowledge Media Design Institute at U of T. He’s researched and presented at year-round schooling conferences since 1990. At the request of Ontario's Ministry of Education, he also researched the Durham District School Board's efforts when implementing the year-round calendar in some schools.
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Q: What is year-round schooling? When people first hear of it, it sounds like students don’t get any time off.
A: That’s a misconception - regardless of calendar configuration, students receive the same number of required instructional days.
There are about 2,000 students in Ontario attending year-round schools, which replaces scheduled lengthy summer holidays with several, shorter breaks throughout the year. In the U.S., there are about 2.5 million students on modified calendars.
There are several variations: “single-track” and “multi-track” configurations. In a “single-track” calendar, all the students and their teachers are on the same program, but there’s a change to the configuration of instruction and vacation days. According to the National Association for Year-Round Education, the most popular year-round “single-track” calendar is the 45/15 schedule, with 45 days (nine weeks) in class, then a 15-day, or three-week, break. There are other ways to split up the calendar such as 45/10, 60/20 or 90/30. NAYRE also has calendar comparisons.
In the Peel District School Board, for example, Roberta Bondar Public School students begin their school year next week - July 31st. Their first break is for two weeks in October; then a three-week Christmas break; a one-week break in February; two weeks in March; then the school year ends June 27, 2007. The school's website has a lot of information and links on year-round schools.
“Multi-track” schools are usually implemented because of overcrowding. This organizational structure can make economic sense by eliminating the need to build costly new schools. The “multi-track” schedule can accommodate as many as 25 or 30 per cent more students in a school by having it used all year long, with groupings of teachers and students on different schedules. Like the “single-track” system, holidays for the “multi-tracks” are dispersed throughout the year. The complexities of scheduling and often the resistance of some parents for having their children attend school during the summer makes this a less popular arrangement.
The first Canadian single-track school was initiated in Williams Lake, B.C. in the late 1980’s. In the 1990’s, Huntsville, Ontario was the site of another single-track school. In Greater Toronto, the Peel District School Board has a single-track school and in Durham, the site of an earlier failed attempt to implement single-track in four schools and a multi-track schedule in one other, there is a handful of schools which offer both the usual school calendar plus the year-round option.
Q: What is the history of the current school calendar?
A: I believe the biggest myth surrounding the current school calendar is the widely believed story that it originated with the 19th century agricultural calendar, giving children time off during peak moments in farming. But planting time and harvest time are usually spring and fall activities, respectively.
There is cumulative research evidence that warrants a more plausible history of the origins of the school calendar. The North American school calendar (September-June), stable since the 1920s, was developed as a result of the demands of an increasingly urbanized society.
Our research indicates that, contrary to the popular myth, rural areas in the nineteenth century were in favour of keeping the schools open during the summer. At least thirteen Ontario rural school boards signed the 1886 “Grey Petition” submitted to the Ontario government to keep schools open because age, long distances from home to school, and winter weather made attendance practically impossible. During bad winter weather, roads were often inaccessible and children were more prone to illness. Our results have been confirmed by other research conducted in Michigan, Virginia, and New York.
How did urbanization affect the calendar? The movement from a voluntary, sporadically attended school to the mandated September- June calendar owed its genesis to the shift to a more urbanized society. As people left the farm for larger urban areas, and with increased immigration from abroad, there were concerns about overcrowded conditions, potential health problems and a fear that idle working class youth would become social problems.
Over time, the school year was increased to its present structure, and the summer months became the major holiday time, in part because the heat in urban areas made it difficult to be in overcrowded schools. Also, as adults increasingly took their holidays during the summer (remember, this was before air conditioning in offices and factories) this allowed them to spend some time with the children. And there was the possibility that all kinds of diseases could be spread in the hot weather. Polio was a very real problem when I was a kid growing up in New York.
Q: What’s the problem with an eight to 13-week summer holiday?
A: The National Association for Year-Round Education out of San Diego says that children really need to have more structured breaks and some sort of organization where they have a certain amount of time in school and certain amount of time off.
With eight to 13 weeks, families often find out by the beginning of August that enough is enough, it’s simply too long. Perhaps the most compelling argument for changing the school calendar is for academic reasons — especially for children at risk — such as the “summer slide,” or what children forget during that long break.
If you start thinking about it, schools start to slow down as June progresses and when you come back in September, there’s the whole business of trying to catch up to where students were in May.
Q: What have studies found?
A: The kids at risk of having problems, the children from less-advantaged homes, are in jeopardy of falling behind over time. Children from middle-class environments go to summer camp, computer camp, museum schools — they have many opportunities the other kids don’t have. With all the activities, they are de facto in year-round schooling. So it has become a class issue. Studies have shown that if there are gains to be made from changing the calendar, the at-risk students are the ones who benefit the most from year-round schools.
Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of year-round schooling?
A: Some people really believe that the major advantage is education; that with a much more consistent pattern of learning opportunities and breaks, that you don’t have that problem of students having that knowledge loss over time. There is a growing sense now that in order to be competitive globally, we can’t afford to let students slide; we need to get a competitive edge and we lose it when schooling is not doing the job it should be doing. Some of the results also indicate that gifted students may be advantaged through participation in school calendar change.
I believe that the change in the calendar allows for the opportunity to rethink how learning and teaching occur, and that suggests opportunities for more reflective educational practice.
A second major advantage seen by some is economic. As schooling has become much more expensive, and draws on the public purse for any number of different programs often in competition with other worthy societal areas, such as health, cost-savings may have to be found. Instead of building new schools, you are using the school building much more efficiently all year long in the “multi-track” system. In all fairness, it’s not clear how much savings will occur, because using the school plant for twelve months a year brings about more wear and tear on the school plant. As well, not all existing schools are equipped with, or can be modified for, air conditioning. So the cost savings might not be as optimistic as people say they are.
Perhaps the most important issue in why changing the school calendar is so controversial is that it’s a radical change from what people are used to, that it’s tampering with an important tradition in our society. Part of it has to do with the fact that the school calendar is one of the “great clocks” of society, a term coined by Todd Rakoff from Harvard Law School. The school calendar has to exist alongside other “great clocks”, such as work, leisure, and health.
For example, as more women are in the workforce, there would be a need for more, and perhaps different forms of, daycare coverage. For families with more than child, there may be issues arising from co-ordinating schedules of schools with different calendar arrangements.
One of the interesting research findings is evidence that teachers with young families are usually against calendar change, but those with older, or no, children support this change because it provides more flexibility to travel at other than peak times. Vacation times between the parents’ workplace and the school may have to be reorganized.
The leisure industries would be impacted, for example, there’s also some organized resistance from camps and resorts, which have built their business around summer vacations.
There’s also some concern about students who need summer jobs for the income; or that schools aren’t able to forge any sense of community or offer a full range of extracurricular programs.
Q: What’s the bottom line?
A: I believe the major issue around calendar change is how we approach changes in the various parts of our life - personal, professional, societal. With so much change taking place, how do we structure the ‘great clocks of our society” to accommodate their competing claims on who we are, our expectations, and what we achieve. For some, the status quo is acceptable, yet for others, change has become a necessity of life. Is the glass half-full, or half-empty when considering the complexities of changing the school calendar?