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Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009 12:16 pm

The pause that regresses

Ending summer learning loss

In class last week, Sarah Brune teaches second-graders at Southern View elementary school.

The kids at District 186’s Southern View elementary school began classes in July again this year. The school is one of two in the district that operate what is almost always called year-round school, even though “year-round” school it isn’t. What is also known as the balanced or all-year schedule is merely the same part-time school spread more evenly across the calendar.

Holding classes in July would seem to be one school innovation that really is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Educationalists insist that there is a good pedagogical reason for shuffling the calendar — to eliminate or reduce “summer learning loss.” Students typically score lower on standardized tests taken at the end of summer vacation than they do on the same tests at the beginning of summer vacation. Math facts in particular evaporate in the summer sun — more than two months of grade-level equivalency on average, according to one widely quoted study. Eliminate the traditional three-month summer break and you eliminate summer learning loss.

A reform so apparently useful and that doesn’t cost money ought to be popular. This one isn’t. Fewer than 100 schools in Illinois used the balanced calendar as of the end of last year (although the Chicago Board of Education in April voted to put 132 of that city’s elementary schools on a year-round schedule).

The lack of air-conditioning in school buildings is an obvious obstacle to wider adoption; unfortunately, the assumption that classes would never be held in the summer inspired buildings in which classes can never be held in the summer. Public opinion is the biggest obstacle to the balanced school calendar, although for reasons that are mostly dubious. Summer jobs per se are disappearing, for instance, and if schools need to give kids an extended break to avoid burnout (in the case of the diligent ones) or rebellion, the solution is to rethink how things are taught, not when.

The three-month summer school break is sanctified by tradition. As we all know, it dates to the dim past before Illinois had indoor toilets or commodity support payments. Back then most Illinois kids lived on farms, where summers found them a-weedin’ and a-milkin.’

Nonsense, every bit of it. The summer school break is not an artifact of primitive agriculture. Farm kids then and now are needed at home during the spring and fall, not the summer; in the 19th century, in fact, rural kids went to school in the summer because that was when they weren’t needed at home.

The summer break was the brainchild of city folks, specifically progressive social reformers active in the cities of the early 20th century. School terms then were set by local officials, and many ran the schools as if they were hostels or homeless shelters. Reformers thought school years of that duration would be much too long to be healthy once attendance was made compulsory, and set about to invent a shorter, state-imposed school year by eliminating the old summer sessions. The change was a blessing to urban families of means who fled stifling and stench-filled cities for the whole summer.

That was more than a century ago. Today we have air conditioning and we have vaccines and not even bankers take three-month vacations anymore. But getting rid of an old bad idea is even harder than getting people to accept a good new one. The one argument that might carry the day — that shortening the summer break means that kids retain more of what they learn — is unproved. California has seen some better test scores among third-graders. However, a sociologist in 2007 looked at test scores and concluded that year-round schools don’t really solve the problem of the summer learning setback—“they simply spread it out across the year.”

District 186 has a calendar committee that last year urged that the spread-out calendar be adopted district-wide. (The full board, not quite convinced, wants more study and consultation.) The recommendation adds a new meaning to the term, summer learning loss. Not for the first time, we have a school calendar reform grounded not in science but intuition and hope. The spread-out year might not be better than the one it replaces, but it seems unlikely to be worse. And that’s more than can be said about most education reforms.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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