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Monday, August 26, 2013

Is Our School Calendar All Wrong?

(woodleywonderworks/Flickr)

(woodleywonderworks/Flickr)

Kids are just starting to go back to school from summer break, and some students will be in school even longer.

This year, five states have added about 300 hours of school time, with funding from federal and local governments and foundations.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is a big supporter of the effort and says more time in school will keep American students competitive.

Lots of teachers will tell you there’s actually less fatigue when you have shorter, more frequent breaks.
– Harris Cooper

Harris Cooper is a professor of education and psychology at Duke University who’s been researching school schedules for decades.

He says getting out at 3 o’clock and having long summer vacation is not good for today’s kids. Instead, he suggests kids go to school for 40 weeks a year, in four sessions of 10 weeks, with three two-week intersessions in the fall, winter and spring, and a six-week summer break.

“In many ways that’s best for kids and it’s best for families,” Cooper told Here & Now. “Most kids are growing up in families where there may be one parent or both parents work outside the home, so their mom and dad have to figure out what to do with them over the summer — how to make their summer both enjoyable and constructive.”

Most students experience some learning loss over the long summer break, Cooper said.

“The more frequent but shorter breaks will lead to less learning loss and therefore teachers won’t have to spend as much time reviewing material when kids come back to school,” said Cooper. “With regards to fatigue, lots of teachers will tell you there’s actually less fatigue when you have shorter, more frequent breaks.”

In terms of school hours, Cooper suggests something more similar to the work day, to be more conducive to parents’ schedules. Those extra hours benefit the kids, too, as long as the additional hours are of “high quality,” Cooper said.

Cooper acknowledges that extending school hours and the school year is expensive. But he argues that some of the cost will be offset by the savings on after-school and summertime child care and programs.

Guest

  • Harris Cooper, professor of education and chair & professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW, and in some parts of the country, today is the first day of school. In others, school started weeks ago. And there are some places where school doesn't start until after Labor Day. But in five states, summer break won't be as long as usual from now on. They've added about 300 hours of school time with funding from federal and local governments and foundations.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is a big supporter of the effort. He says more time in school with keep American students competitive. Well, Harris Cooper is a professor of psychology at Duke University who's been researching school schedules for decades and says getting out at 3:00 and having long summer vacations is not good for today's kids. Professor Cooper, welcome.

HARRIS COOPER: Thank you for inviting me.

HOBSON: Well, you are suggesting that kids go to school for 40 weeks a year in four sessions of 10 weeks with three two-week intersessions in the fall, winter and spring and a six-week summer break, why?

COOPER: Because in many ways that's best for kids, and it's best for families. The way we send our children to school today doesn't really have a whole lot to do with what is needed for families. Most kids are growing up in families where there may be one parent or both parents work outside the home, so their mom and dad have to figure out what to do with them over the summer, how to make their summer both enjoyable and constructive.

And we find ourselves in situations where lots of activities grow up to fill those gaps in the school calendar.

HOBSON: So maybe it's easier for the parents. What does it mean for the kids to be in school for such long periods of time throughout the year?

COOPER: The long summer break has been shown to lead to some learning loss. All kids seem to lose mathematics skills over summer. Some kids, especially poorer children, will also lose reading as well. The more frequent but shorter breaks will lead to less learning loss, and therefore teachers won't have to spend as much time reviewing material when kids come back to school.

HOBSON: What about fatigue for the kids if they're in school for that much of the year? And by the way, the inability to travel, as they may, during the summer, a longer summer?

COOPER: Well, there are two questions there. Let me answer the second one first, and that's why can't kids go to Disneyland in the wintertime?

(LAUGHTER)

HOBSON: Or Europe. Maybe they want to do something educational.

COOPER: Europe in fall. But many families whose children go to school on the modified calendars actually discover that because they have some flexibility about when they'll get their vacation, that it leads to them being able to go and not have to fight the crowds that they fight in summer.

With regard to fatigue, lots of teachers will tell you there's actually less fatigue when you have shorter, more frequent breaks.

HOBSON: Would you have the students have longer school days, as well as a longer period of time during the year in which they are in school?

COOPER: Again, the same question is: How do most American families live today? And the eight-to-three school day doesn't fit with the way most Americans live. Lots of the kids are going home to houses or apartments where there is no adult supervision, or there's other after-school activity. So parents struggle with how to fill their kids' day, as well as their year, with fun and constructive activities.

HOBSON: It's interesting that you're talking about the parents and what this means for the families rather than the kids. Does it make them smarter to spend eight hours in school every day as opposed to six?

COOPER: That's a good question, and the answer, the first answer to that question has to be it depends on how you use that time. So if you're going to add additional hours to poor instruction, you're not going to get any payback for it. If you're adding additional hours to instruction that's of high quality and leads to positive outcomes, then you will get more bang for your buck.

It's also the case that we often bemoan at this point things that are getting crowded out of the school day because of the emphasis on basic skills like math, science, social studies, and perhaps if the school day was expanded, some of those activities, and physical education could be put back in the school day. All those things will help kids.

HOBSON: Would you like to see some of the extra time, let's say that the students are going to school until 6:00 p.m. instead of 4:00 p.m. - would those last couple of hours or few hours be for sports or ballet or music or something like that?

COOPER: I think for some grade levels, this is personal opinion, that's exactly what you want to do. But not at the - necessarily the expense of the basic skills. What I'd really like to see is the use of that time for individualized instruction, where there are multiple opportunities for children, some of which are remedial, if that's what they need, some of which are enrichment, if they're doing well in school already and they have - they're showing special skills in areas typically not covered in school.

Or some of it could be for acceleration, where kids who are doing really well in school have an opportunity for challenging work. So I would use the time for individualization, more so than simply treating every child the same.

HOBSON: Professor Cooper, I'm sure there are a lot of people listening to this, maybe they're teachers or principals or people who work in state legislatures who are saying, yeah, great idea, sounds wonderful, it's going to cost a lot of money.

COOPER: It's going to cost money, but some of that money is offset by public funds that we use at the moment for child care for disadvantaged children and sending them to after-school programs and summer school programs, and middle class parents are taking on the financial burden for those after-school programs and summer programs already.

So while I'm not going to try and make the argument that it is revenue neutral, I would make the argument that perhaps it's not quite as expensive as we might think at first blush.

HOBSON: So do you see this as a reality that we are going to see soon then? Will we see school districts going with a longer calendar, maybe a longer day?

COOPER: I think so, yes. At some point, because of the change in American families and the way we live, the pressure for changes in the school calendar are likely to follow. There's going to be resistance because of the economics and the shift in who's paying and how, but if we were Martians and we came down to Earth, and we looked at the way we send our kids to school in the United States today, one of the first questions we would certainly be asked is how come these buildings are all empty over summer.

And if we tried to explain that to an alien, we would probably suggest to ourselves ultimately that it really doesn't make a whole lot of sense anymore.

HOBSON: I'm not sure what the Martians do for their school calendars.

COOPER: I think that their schools are really small so they - because we can't see them.

HOBSON: Professor Harris Cooper teaches psychology at Duke University. And he thinks kids should be going to school 40 weeks a year in four sessions of 10 weeks. Professor, thank you so much for joining us.

COOPER: It was my pleasure.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

And Jeremy, we're getting a lot of feedback on this issue, as you might imagine, on our Facebook page. Lane Smith thinks that students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, can lose a lot of what they've learned during the long summer break and never catch up. So she votes for year-round school.

Brendan McTear, however, goes in the other direction. He writes: I would love to have all summer off and a big break for Christmas and Easter.

HOBSON: Well, we would love to hear what you think about this. Should kids be in school all year round? Are we sending kids to school for too short of time during the day? Let us know at hereandnow.org or at Facebook.com/hereandnowradio. Latest news is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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