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 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT