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The School Calendar:
It's Time to Make Time for Learning


How is the school-year calendar determined in your school system? How is the length of the school day determined? Is student learning at the center of those decisions?

The length of the school year and the school day are under scrutiny....

Recently, American students' dismaying results on the TIMSS (Third International Mathematics and Science Study) have raised the concerns of educators, employers, taxpayers, and parents. Many of the countries where students outscored ours require substantially more days of school each year -- more than 200 days of school each year. Over twelve years of schooling, that extra time adds up.

The amount of information children have to absorb has increased since the nine-month, 180-day school year was instituted. Each year, new subject matter is mandated -- yet the length of the school day does not increase. Non-academic events continue to take time out of the school day. We ask, how in the world can everything be taught? The answer: It isn't. There is simply not enough time.


Most schools still follow a traditional calendar: school meets from September to June and a long summer vacation follows. This model was developed for the agrarian society of the past when students helped on the family farm and were needed at home during the busiest times of the year. (In some rural areas of the country, local school calendars still provide breaks for farm work.) Economic needs -- not educational needs -- dictated the school year.

It's the end of the 1990s. In general, life has speeded up. Family time has decreased; many women with young children are working outside of the home; society is more diverse; income inequity is growing -- and technology access widens the gap; drugs, crime, disease, and poverty make the world a dangerous place for children and families.

But time in school has remained constant.

"It [the September to June school calendar] was not designed to enhance instruction then, and it does not do so now," Charles Ballinger told Minnesota Parent. Even now, when school reform is high on local and national agendas, changes in school schedules can come from many directions. Michigan's House Tourism Committee even proposed a bill requiring school doors to open after September 1 starting in 1998, and then after Labor Day beginning in 2000. (That committee promotes tourism in the state!)


The National Education Commission on Time and Learning issued its eye-opening report, Prisoners of Time, in 1994. The report began:

"Learning in America is a prisoner of time. For the past 150 years, American public schools have held time constant and let learning vary. The rule, only rarely voiced, is simple: Learn what you can in the time we make available. It should surprise no one that some bright, hard-working students do reasonably well. Everyone else -- from the typical student to the dropout -- runs into trouble.

"Time is learning's warden. Our time-bound mentality has fooled us all into believing that schools can educate all of the people all of the time in a school year of 180 six-hour days. The consequence of our self-deception has been to ask the impossible of our students. We expect them to learn as much as their counterparts abroad in only half the time.

"...If experience, research, and common sense teach nothing else, they confirm the truism that people learn at different rates, and in different ways with different subjects. But we have put the cart before the horse: our schools and the people involved with them -- students, parents, teachers, administrators, and staff -- are captives of clock and calendar. The boundaries of student growth are defined by schedules for bells, buses, and vacations instead of standards for students and learning."

The report goes on to identify false premises on which the American educational system is based.

  • Students arrive at school ready to learn in the same way, on the same schedule, all in rhythm with each other.
  • Academic time can be used for nonacademic purposes with no effect on learning.
  • Because yesterday's calendar was good enough for us, it should be good enough for our children -- despite major changes in the larger society.
  • Schools can be transformed without giving teachers the time they need to retool themselves and reorganize their work.
  • It is reasonable to expect "world-class academic performance" from our students within the time-bound system that is already failing them.

"The Commission ...recommend[s] that schools provide additional academic time by reclaiming the school day for academic instruction." This recommendation would establish at least 5.5 hours of core academic instruction -- an academic day -- daily for English and language arts, mathematics, science, civics, history, geography, the arts, and foreign language. Other activities would occur within a lengthened day. By protecting that time for core instruction, the Commission projected a doubling of instructional time.

The Commission concluded that "education must become a new national obsession, as powerful as sports and entertainment, if we are to avoid a spiral of economic and social decline." By education, the Commission meant student learning -- not "seat time" in school.

"American students must have more time for learning. The six-hour, 180-day school year should be relegated to museums, an exhibit from our education past. Both learners and teachers need more time -- not to do more of the same, but to use all time in new, different, and better ways. The key to liberating learning lies in unlocking time."


Changing traditional instruction and schedules is a difficult undertaking. But individual schools and districts around the United States are making changes in the way they use time. In most cases, the changes are made locally, and often as pilot programs. Sometimes the change is successful, sometimes not.

Year-round schools operate with more breaks -- but shorter ones -- during the school year. While the number of days in the school calendar does not always change, shorter breaks mean most children retain more of what they have learned.

The Six to Six Interdistrict Magnet School, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, is open for twelve hours each day. Principal Anne Hamilton told Education World that the core day is from 8:30 to 3:00, and both the earlier morning hours and later afternoon hours are staffed by certified teachers. The regional school is also open during summer, holiday, and other vacation periods, again staffed by teachers. Hamilton said that the only time the school is closed is two weeks before the beginning of the school year in September.

Twenty schools in Jacksonville, Florida, switched to calendars that eliminated the long summer vacation over the past five years, according to an editorial in the Florida Times-Union. Half of those have either switched back, or are planning to ask for a return to the traditional calendar.

The school year in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, is increasing. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that that town's 1997 teacher contract adds one day to the school year each year for four years, increasing the calendar from 186 to 189 days. The teachers' workday also increases to an eight-hour day, the Inquirer reports.

Wake County, North Carolina, students may be going to school for ten more days starting in 1999, according to a Raleigh News & Observer report. A school board committee is studying the change. "Parents have objected to the Wake calendar's creep into summer, which has been occurring during the past several years," the report states. "The Wake Association of Classroom Teachers objects to converting planning days to teaching days."


Many schools are adjusting their use of the existing time in the school day. Block scheduling can provide opportunities for classes to use time to their advantage -- more time when needed.

Team planning time has allowed teachers to work as teams, following the same theme through several disciplines. Some elementary schools schedule music, art, and physical education classes in a block to minimize transition time in the classroom.


New research indicates that adolescents' biological clocks require extra sleep in the morning. "Asking high school students to absorb and understand classroom material at 7 a.m. is like asking adults to function in a work environment at 3 a.m.," Mark Muhowald of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center, told NEA Today Online. The Minnesota Medical Association asked state school districts to examine and possibly adjust their high school starting times. Several Minnesota schools have switched to later start times.

"Kids are in a learning-impaired mode right now," says Muhowald. "I fail to find a single educationally or societally valid reason to send kids to school exhausted. If the purpose of school is to educate, then we should send children to school in a condition that promotes learning -- not one that interferes with it."

Some Maryland school districts examined the hours that schools are in session, especially opening times. A study in Anne Arundel county found that the "first bell has been ringing slightly earlier every year for the past decade," states a Washington Post report. High school students in some areas are waiting for the bus by 6:20 a.m. and some schools begin at 7:17. That's early for anyone.


Schools are at a crossroads. Emotions always run high when changes to school calendars are proposed. Students, parents, teachers, and taxpayers all have their own concerns and are affected in different ways.

  • Some students fear loss of time for jobs, sports, and other extracurricular activities. Other students revel in additional school time or a more flexible approach to the time spent there.
  • Parents fear disruption of family time and family traditions.
  • Teachers are concerned about additional hours or days and disruption that might be caused to their own families and educational opportunities. Teachers are also aware that change requires time to learn new methods and plan in new ways.
  • Taxpayers are concerned with the costs of extended days and years. Money for transportation and labor contracts would increase.

If we want our kids to be the best, and be prepared to take on the responsibilities of adulthood, they have to spend more time learning. Long summer vacations may become history. Thinking about it though, most students do not spend long, lazy summers, enjoying the wonders of nature. More often they are involved in camp programs, jobs, or other organized activities. The hazy memory of "summertime" may already be history. Working parents often cannot spend additional time with their children even in the summer.

New charter schools and magnet schools are designing their programs with a concern for time. Many are using time to their advantage. Where summer heat once made schools intolerable, many new schools (even where winters are cold) are built with air conditioning.

It's about time for all schools and school districts to plan time for student learning. And time for adults to consider the needs of students first. After all, isn't that what school is all about?

Related Sites


  • Effects of School Calendars on Student Achievement and Retention A critical review of literature related to year-round education by a Valdosta State University student.
  • Extending the School Year and Day According to this ERIC Digest "Arguments for lengthening the school day and/or school year assume that more time devoted to learning will yield proportionally higher achievement scores. Research data reveal, however, that the correlation between time and achievement is far slighter than expected and suggest that the quality of time spent in learning is more important than the quantity. Moreover, the costs of extending school time are disproportionate to any resulting instructional gains."
  • Block Scheduling This AskERIC InfoGuide provides resources for school administrators who are contemplating a move to block scheduling.
  • Some Schools Agree to Let Sleeping Teens Lie The Journal of the American Medical Association reports "High school will open at 8:30 a.m. this fall, 65 minutes later than last year, in Edina, Minnesota, a Minneapolis suburb. School officials hope the 1,300 students in grades 9 through 12 will get more sleep and, as a result, be sharper in class. Area physicians lobbied for the new hours."
  • School Board Panel Tackling Teachers' Demands for Planning Time A February Washington Post report about teachers in Loudon County (Virginia).
  • Debate rages about longer school year: Does it pass the test? "It's the crux of the question some educators -- and even President Clinton -- are asking: Is there time to teach it all? If not, should the school day or school year be longer?"
  • Prisoners of Time A report from Report of the National Education Commission on Time and Learning (April 1994) addresses the dimensions of the time challenge and lessons from abroad. The report recommends reinventing schools around learning, not time; using time in new and better ways; establishing an "academic day;" keeping schools open longer; giving teachers the time they need; and more. The report examines some schools that are trying "a better way."

Article by Gary Hopkins, Editor-in-Chief
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Originally published 05/18/1998
Last updated 09/22/2009