Probing Question: Does year-round schooling work?

School's out for summer! Or is it? American students groaned when President Obama called for a longer school year in March 2009, saying, "Our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea. That is no way to prepare them for a 21st-century economy." While extending the school year won't get the playground vote or support from Malia and Sasha Obama, would year-round schooling help kids learn?

kids getting on bus

Not unless we also improve our teaching effectiveness, says Barbara Marinak, assistant professor of literacy education at Penn State Harrisburg, and a former public school administrator. "More days in the classroom won't help unless you have good instruction. It's not an issue of time, it's an issue of what you do with your time."

The debate about adding days to the school year is comparable to discussions on class size, says Marinak. Studies on that topic show that, when it comes to student learning, "the salient variable is the effectiveness of the teacher." Teacher effectiveness, she says, comes from an administration that values highly trained, experienced teachers. Pointing to examples of urban schools that are highly successful in spite of large classes, high poverty rates, and only 180 days of classroom instruction, Marinak says, "They do it with effective leadershipĆ³a highly knowledgeable principal who invests time and money in staff development and support." She advocates for teacher education, professional development, and experts like certified reading specialists as more important than "just having students in the seats longer."

Marinak points out that "year-round schooling" can also mean spreading the 180 days of school across the year, "basically obliterating summer vacation, and giving kids and teachers more frequent breaks." Proponents say that no summer break means students don't waste time in the fall getting back up to speed, and buildings aren't empty for months. But this schedule isn't the solution, says Marinak. "Several large studies, including one from North Carolina with two years of longitudinal data and good statistical analysis, show that that it doesn't lead to any academic gains."

So why even consider changing the school year? The quest for better math and science grades is part of the answer. International studies show that students from South Korea, with 220 days of school, and from Japan, with 243 days, usually score higher in math and science than U.S. students. The additional days that Japanese students spend in school from kindergarten to graduation add up to over three more years of school than American students.

Sounds convincing, but Marinak, who studies what motivates kids to read, says, "Our research in literacy shows it's simply not effective to just add more time. What's important is knowing the child as a reader, and understanding their needs based on a rich variety of data, not just the results of one test." Then, for kids who need extra help, timely intervention by well-trained, highly professional reading specialists is the way to get results.

So for now, at least, the U.S. public school calendar still has 180 days. Kids, get out the swimsuits and set up the lemonade stands!

Barbara A. Marinak, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor and Graduate Program Coordinator in Literacy Education, Penn State Harrisburg, bam234@psu.edu.

Last Updated May 18, 2010