Skip to main content

We need a longer school year

By Jennifer Davis, Special to CNN
updated 10:42 AM EDT, Fri August 31, 2012
Jennifer Davis says children do better in school when the year is longer.
Jennifer Davis says children do better in school when the year is longer.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jennifer Davis: Children lose educational gains in summer, do better with a longer school year
  • Davis: Students from low-income families really fall behind peers with more advantages
  • Phoenix district extended school year; scores on state tests went up, she says, failure rates down
  • All students do better, she says, and it provides opportunities for more creative teaching

Editor's note: Jennifer Davis is the co-founder and president of the National Center on Time and Learning, a nonprofit that promotes expanding learning time to improve student achievement. She has held federal, state and local positions aimed at improving educational opportunities for children, including serving as U.S. Department of Education deputy assistant secretary. Follow the center on Twitter @expanding_time.

(CNN) -- In America, summer holds a special place in our hearts: lazy afternoons, camping at the lake, warm evenings gazing at the moon. For children, especially, summer can unleash the free flow of discovery. For older children, summer often brings their first job.

But this idyllic picture masks the reality that for too many children, particularly those from low-income families, languid summers can be educationally detrimental, and for families in which both parents work, summers are a logistical nightmare.

Considerable research shows that the primary reason the achievement gap between poor children and their more affluent peers widens over the course of their school careers is the long break in learning over the summer. It's called summer slide.

Jennifer Davis
Jennifer Davis

During the school year, disadvantaged children manage to catch up somewhat to more advantaged students. But during the summer, they lose those gains while their more advantaged peers -- whose parents can afford to arrange for summer enriching activities -- maintain theirs. And a persistent achievement gap among children only leads to economic and social gaps that continue into adulthood.

These gaps destabilize our society. Surely, eliminating the long summer break by making our school year longer, at least for schools serving poor neighborhoods, seems a ready solution to a problem that has enormously negative implications.

An analysis of charter schools in New York by economist Caroline Hoxby revealed that students are most likely to outperform peers, both in traditional district schools and at other charters, if they attend schools that are open at least 10 days more than the conventional year.

Families with resources can often find educational summer programs and camps that broaden their children's skills and then figure out how to transport children to these activities. But even so, the question remains: Does it really make sense for children to be out of school for up to 12 weeks in the summer?

Requiring students (and teachers, for that matter) to stay in school for more days is complicated and must overcome at least two significant obstacles. First, more days of school usually carries a price tag to cover costs of additional staff time, transportation and keeping buildings running. Second, although public attitudes are changing, overhauling such an ingrained institution as the long summer break won't be accomplished easily.

The response to the first issue is to weigh the long-term costs of the summer break against the short-term costs of a longer school year.

Balsz Elementary School District in Phoenix, for example, has extended its school year to 200 days, paying teachers 9% more to work the additional days. Since the longer year has been implemented, proficiency rates on state tests have risen, failure rates have fallen, and the achievement gap is disappearing. Clearly, the relatively small increase in budget yields large dividends for the students who attend. Students graduating middle school proficient in algebra and reading have opportunities open to them that are simply nonexistent for students at risk of failure.

Then consider the Brooklyn Generation School in New York, which has developed a model in which the students in grades nine through 12 attend for 200 days, but the teachers, on staggered schedules, are there for only 180. That means they earn salaries equal to their peers throughout the city. There is no shortage of innovation that can bring the benefits of a longer year to students.

And what of the idea that summer should be a time of respite from the stresses of school?

There are two wrong notions wrapped up in this perspective. The first is that somehow summer is automatically a magical time for children. Such may be the case for children from middle- and upper-class homes, but for those whose families can't afford camp or other activities, summer is often a time of emptiness and tedium. As one Balsz fifth-grader, happy to be back at school in August, declared, "Sometimes summer is really boring. We just sit there and watch TV."

The second, more significant, misperception is that school is automatically bereft of the excitement and joy of learning. On the contrary, as the National Center on Time and Learning describes in its studies of schools that operate with significantly more time, educators use the longer days and years to enhance the content and methods of the classroom. It provides more openings for hands-on learning, student collaboration and inquiry-based learning, where students push themselves to learn. Why shouldn't children have these same opportunities during the summer as they do in cooler months?

It is true that just having more time, whether it's more days during the year or more hours during the day, does not guarantee a superior education. Educators must use that extra time well and be committed to addressing individual students' needs and not waver in their drive for excellence. Yet, we do know that teachers who lack sufficient time with students, and students who spend too much time away from productive learning, are fighting an uphill battle in an environment where we hold increasingly high expectations for our children.

There is no reason to scale back these expectations. Our future as a nation depends upon having a well-informed, highly skilled work force and citizenry. We should expect our schools to furnish today's students with the education they will need to excel in our global society. But we must also be willing to provide schools the tools they need to ensure this outcome, including the flexibility to turn the lazy days of summer into the season of learning.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jennifer Davis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:06 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 7:17 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 7:37 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT