Op-ed: Shorter School Year Bad for Students

This op-ed by Thomas Rains Jr., Policy Director of A+ Education Partnership, was originally posted on al.com May 1, 2012. 

While the rest of the world is moving toward a longer school year and pushing to compete in the global economy, Alabama is considering a bill that would do just the opposite.
The Flexible School Calendar Act (HB 360) would decrease student achievement and increase the achievement gap.
HB 360 mandates that school begin no earlier than two weeks before Labor Day, and end no later than the Friday before Memorial Day each year. This will constrain the allowable calendar so that it would be impossible to hold the required 180 days of school without cutting into holidays like Thanksgiving and the winter and spring breaks.
The bill changes the 180-day requirement to a 1,080-hour requirement over the course of a school year. The plan may sound like a relief for some, but this change would increase summer learning loss and effectively decrease instructional time for students — two changes that would give Alabama a less-developed workforce in the future.
Mandating a 12-week summer will exacerbate the effect of summer learning loss, especially on students already at a disadvantage.
All students lose some math skills during the summer months, according to research from Duke University. And while middle-income students maintain their reading skills over the summer, low-income students lose reading and spelling skills — in addition to falling behind in math.
Two-thirds of the ninth-grade achievement gap between low-income and higher-income students can be attributed to summer learning loss, according to research from Johns Hopkins University.
The documented effects of the summer slide on low-income students are especially alarming, considering that 58.13 percent of Alabama’s public school students are classified as low-income.
Additionally, HB 360 would effectively cut instruction time during the school year. Last week, several school systems in Alabama discussed new calendars to be used if this bill passes. The proposals cut the school year by eight to 10 days and lengthen the remaining days by approximately 20 minutes.
Lengthening the school day is an idea worthy of discussion, but it has to be a meaningful increase. Schools using this tactic and successfully educating students at higher levels have maintained the number of days and extended their school days by an hour or more of additional instructional time, according to the National Center on Time and Learning.
One survey of teachers conducted by the NCTL asked what it would actually take for children to master standards-based curricula for four core classes. For 12th-graders, teachers estimated it would take 1,128 hours annually, and for eighth-graders this jumped to 1,422 hours — significantly longer than the 1,080 hours mandated by HB 360.
During his term in office, Gov. Bob Riley fought hard to increase Alabama’s school year to 180 instructional days. But this only brought the state up to the national average.
As it stands, most of the United States is already behind many of our global economic competitors: Japan, 243 days; South Korea, 220 days; Israel, 216 days; England, 192 days; and Finland, 190 days.
HB 360 would move Alabama in the wrong direction.