KELLY: We don’t need no education

A longer school year would greatly benefit American students

Lengthening the school year, especially at the grade and high school levels, ought to be an appealing suggestion. Understandably, after a lengthy winter break, most students might be acutely ill-disposed towards such an argument. There is certainly something to be said of the beneficial impact of both winter and summer breaks, especially as they relate to the improvement of family relations and to mental health. It is arguable, nonetheless, that lengthening the school year can lead to tangible academic improvement and a reorientation of how American students assess the importance of education, all while retaining the benefits of breaks that opponents of such a move point to.

Simply put, increasing instructional time will lead to increased learning among students each year; many students are bound to benefit academically from such an arrangement. That being said, improving the quality of instructional time is at least as important as increasing the quantity of time in school, if not more so. Lengthening the school year will not lead many students to think of education as something more than a chore if the quality of instruction at several schools remains mediocre at best.

Although the 180-day school year is by and large the norm in the United States, it is much shorter than in most other industrialized countries, where the school year usually lasts for 200 days or more and where students regularly outperform American students in most academic categories. The lengthy summer break that most American students enjoy invariably results in significant lapses in learning, which often result in a frustrating game of catch-up when students return to school in the fall, where they must relearn material that they forgot over the break. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the country itself is attempting to catch-up with other industrialized nations whose students outperform their American counterparts. For disadvantaged students in particular, whose parents often cannot afford to send them to summer enrichment programs, the cost of the long break is especially high.

On a broader note, expanding the academic calendar would serve as a powerful expression of the primacy of education. By increasing the amount of time that students spend in the classroom, states can help to demonstrate a wider commitment to giving the next generation the mental faculties to successfully grapple with the challenges of the future. For high school students struggling with their reading assignments and grade school students contending with their times tables, an increased commitment to the importance of education through lengthening the school year would send a message that their academic achievement is significant and that their own community cares enough to invest in the improvement of their education.

Granted, teachers — many of whom are underpaid and overworked — may strongly resist such an addition to their workload. A longer school year, however, may in fact be the most practical way to augment investment in public schools, which educators have strongly yet unsuccessfully advocated for in recent years. Teachers undoubtedly deserve higher pay for the critical work that they do, and instituting a longer school year may put teachers in a more advantageous position to acquire said pay. Though the increase in work for teachers brought on by a longer school year will inevitably be substantial, is it truly a radical idea to ask the entire education infrastructure in the various states to work an extra few weeks of the year? Granted, the sheer logistics of such a decision will present many challenges and require a fair bit of money (20 billion according to a noted 1983 estimate) but can the public at least have the honesty to accept that the nation is falling further behind in educating its citizens and that the defunct, old-fashioned academic calendar is endangering the nation’s future?

All that being said, a longer school year will not serve as a cure-all for the nation’s educational troubles. It will not substitute for good teachers or proper class sizes, nor will it act as a replacement for parental involvement in the education of their children. The potential benefits of such a system, however, make it a necessary and practical path towards broader reform in education. The current preference for the status quo is only justified if there is a serious possibility that the reforms in question will produce negative results; since many noteworthy studies on the topic of lengthening the school year have indicated that such a system would engender positive results for students, the public should view a longer school year as an attractive idea. The underlying issue at question is the value that we place as a society on education; when American students are in school for less than half of the year, what kind of message does that send, both at home and abroad?

Conor Kelly is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at c.kelly@cavalierdaily.com.

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