co-authored by Brendan Meece
Not all school calendars are created equal. Various interests have fundamentally different ideas about the best calendar.
Administrative ease, family needs, employee preference, financial cost and student success are all pulling in different directions when the school boards in Washington adopt a school calendar.
The Freedom Foundation recently conducted research to determine which school districts in the state of Washington had the best 2017-18 school calendar. For this analysis, the assumption was that student learning was the highest priority. Or should be.
Consequently, three conditions stand out as best practices:
- a school year of at least 180 days;
- a shorter summer; and,
- minimal schedule disruptions caused by partial school days.
Washington has 295 standard school districts, eight tribal schools and 10 charter schools. The analysis was focused on the compulsory education districts with state-defined boundaries.
Criteria One: More or Fewer Days of School
Since organized learning can’t happen when neither teachers nor students are in school, it seems axiomatic that students accessing instruction on more days are going to make greater academic gains than those with fewer.
As expected, research does note a correlation between student learning and the school calendar.
The National Education Commission on Time and Learning made the case for calendar improvements in 1994, and the National Center on Time and Learning has assembled research on the merits of improving school calendars.
When various school practices are compared, those that improve students’ “time on task” are associated with improved student outcomes.
Standard public school districts in Washington are required to have a minimum of 180 days of school, but 62 districts seek special “waivers” to shorten their school year.
None of the districts used their authority to authorize more than 180 days. However, in an effort to woo families looking to make stronger academic gains, six of the state’s charter schools extend their school year by one to five more days.
Rainer Valley Leadership Academy, for example, has a school year of 185 days.
Around the world, countries with recognized excellent education systems generally have school years longer than 180 days – some much longer.
For this analysis, districts that took away student school days were scored lower for having a shorter school year.
Criteria Two: Short or Long Summer
Much research documents how student learning declines as a result of summer vacations. Time magazine summarized the research:
“After collecting a century’s worth of academic studies, summer-learning expert Harris Cooper, now at Duke University, concluded that, on average, all students lose about a month of progress in math skills each summer, while low-income students slip as many as three months in reading comprehension, compared with middle-income students.”
School district calendars have varying summer lengths, as well, even if the number of school days. By including more breaks, full days of teacher preparation time, snow days or longer breaks school boards can shorten the summer.
The schools with the shortest summer were ranked the highest.
|Shortest Summer||Longest Summer|
Again, most public charter schools have a shorter summer than even the very best of the standard public schools.
Criteria Three: Few or Many Disrupted School Days
The ideal school schedule for student learning would be full days of schooling with very few exceptions. Some days likely to be already disrupted such as the day before Christmas break starts or the last day of school, but consistency is the ideal.
Disrupting the school schedule by shortening the day can impact learning by diluting learning time when classes are shortened significantly, but passing times and breaks remain the same. Many educators and students suggest the compressed schedule is insufficient for students to settle into learning.
Some research suggests that inconsistent school schedules can be a burden for students with behavioral or learning disabilities. In a study of these students, Ben Aker writes:
“Consistency in instruction is needed for the student to understand the purpose of the schedule and how it relates to the daily activities at school” (Downing & Peckham-Hardin, 2001). “Students with emotional and behavioral disorders or learning disabilities thrive on predictable environments; this means that the environments should have limited transitions or surprises.”
Inconsistent scheduling can also be a problem for parents, particularly low-income or single-parent households. These must cut work hours, hire caretakers or leave children unattended for when schools release students at inconsistent times.
Finally, the financial inefficiency of school half-days is also a negative factor. The expense of opening a school, transporting and feeding students is the same whether the learning time is a full day or a half day. Financial inefficiency means that services for
For this analysis, disrupted days were defined as those at least one hour shorter than a regular school day, and districts with many disrupted days were scored lower.
Best School District Calendars in Washington
Based on the criteria of the number of school days, the length of summer and the number of disrupted school days, the following are the top-ranked school calendars.
|Rank||District||School Days||Summer Length||Disrupted Days|
As was mentioned, public charter schools were not taken into account during the overall ranking, but it is worth noting that most of them had fewer summer days and longer school years than standard public schools. These facts would have scored most of them above the top-ranked standard school districts.
Although school districts throughout the state of Washington are required to have certain characteristics, local school leadership teams still have much control over the structure of their calendar.
It is possible to limit the number of disrupted days and to adopt a robust schedule with puts student learning as the highest priority.
“2017-18 School Breaks.” State of Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Retrieved from http://www.k12.wa.us/GeneralInfo/SchoolBreaks2017-18.aspx#Y
“Waivers.” The Washington State Board of Education. Retrieved from http://www.sbe.wa.gov/our-work/waivers
Time and Learning
David A. Farbman. (February 2015.) “The Case for Improving and Expanding Time in School:A Review of Key Research and Practice.” National Center on Time and Learning. Retrieved from https://timeandlearning.org/sites/default/files/resources/caseformorelearningtime.pdf
Erika A. Patall, Harris Cooper, Ashley Batts Allen. (September 2010.) “Extending the School Day or School Year – A Systematic Review of Research (1985–2009)” Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.3102/0034654310377086
The National Education Commission on Time and Learning (1994, reprinted 2005.) “Prisoners of Time.” The Education Commission of the States. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED489343.pdf.
David Van Drehle. (July 22 2010.) “The Case Against Summer Vacation.” Time Magazine. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2005863-1,00.html
Harris Cooper, Jeffrey C. Valentine, Kelly Charlton, and April Melson. (Spring 2003). “The Effects of Modified School Calendars on Student Achievement and on School and Community Attitudes.” Review of Education Research, Spring 2003, Vol. 73, No. 1, pp 1-52. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/3516042?newaccount=true&read-now=1&seq=2#page_scan_tab_contents
Ben Aker. (May 2008.) “A Comprehensive Study Regarding School Day Inconsistencies and Their Effects On Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders And Learning Disabilities.” The Graduate School University of Wisconsin-Stout. Retrieved from http://www2.uwstout.edu/content/lib/thesis/2008/2008akerb.pdf
Carey Goldberg. (April 18 2014.) “Killing Parents Softly With Half Days.” Wbur 90.9. Retrieved from http://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2014/04/18/half-days-carey-goldberg.