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One Break, Two Break, Spring Break, Summer Break

April 04, 2012 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

Many Minnesota schools have already had their spring breaks, with many more taking this week off. By historical precedent, this week would have been the most likely pick, ending as it does with Easter. As we've done a better job recognizing the multi-faceted nature of our populace (and as budgets have recommended other times to realize seasonal savings), we've got a little more variety. This is also a good time to reflect on the notion of time off from school.

Contrary to popular belief, summer break is not solely a concession to the country's agrarian heritage. In fact, many rural schools used to run summer and winter terms so that students could plant in spring and harvest in fall. Many urban areas would take time off in the summer to avoid the unsanitary conditions caused by bringing dense concentrations of children together in stifling heat.

Another rationale offered in defense of breaks was that they helped avoid burnout. Many feared that children forced into structured learning all year long would face higher rates of nervous conditions and other mental problems. As the United States goes through year after year of watching countries with year-round schooling beat us on international assessments, however, some people want to reconsider the length of our school year.

As always, this is more complicated than it seems at first blush. Would kids do better if they were in school year-round? Some would, some wouldn't. The RAND Corporation has found that summer break is a leading contributor to the achievement gap. Children from higher income households often spend summer at various camps (ranging in focus from language to chess to music to traditional outdoors activities) or traveling with their families. Children from lower income households often don't have these same opportunities. The result? Children from the middle class and above tend to hold or gain ground in academic proficiency while children from lower incomes tend to backslide.

When it comes to addressing the question of breaks, we have different options. We can stick with the traditional schedule and try to do a better job creating free or low-cost summer enrichment opportunities for low-income children (and such activities should be noticeably different than remediation-focused summer school). We can shift when breaks occur, moving to a schedule like the 45/15 calendar that runs 45 school days (about nine weeks) followed by 15 school days (about three weeks) for most of the year. This doesn't add to the number of days, but it reduces the length of time during which backsliding can occur. And, of course, we can just lengthen the school year.

Minnesota already has some schools trying all of these approaches (plus, undoubtedly, a few more). Which is best? That's the wrong question to ask. The right question is: Are we getting each kid into a school with the schedule that's best for them?

The answer to that? Probably not. Most of our schools still run with the traditional schedule and minimal summer enrichment opportunities. We need larger proportions of our school system following the different available models, and we need districts that are invested and effective in guiding students to appropriate schools. Whether this is achieved through increased use of the state's relatively new and untried site-based governance law or through more public choice options like Longfellow Elementary in Rochester, we need a greater diversity of approaches in our traditional public school districts.

Some might point out that this is why we have charter schools. It is true that several of our highest-performing charter schools (despite the narrowness of that definition in most cases) run with longer school years and/or days. Charters serve a small share of our student population, however, and I'm not ready to concede the notion that innovation or diversity of approach belong outside the traditional public schools. We need to get intentional about school diversity through traditional public schools, which means creating lots of different options and making sure that the staff at each school buy into its approach and want to be there.

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