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Alternative School Calendars: Smart Idea or Senseless Experiment?

If American students are to compete effectively in a global economy, do they need to spend substantially more time in school? Would increasing the length of the school year or school day raise students' achievement, or would it be more advantageous to alter how we use the time we currently have? Many school systems are experimenting with alternative instructional schedules in an attempt to find out. Included: Year-round schools, later start times, the four-day week, trimesters, and more!

Are American schools serving up a quality education for all students? Although we provide students more years of formal schooling than any other nation, our school year is short, usually only 180 days. The world's average is 200 to 220 days per year, and Japan's is 243. (See "Give Kids More School," USA Today, August 31,1992.) Over time, this difference can add up.

International comparisons of student achievement seem to show American students lagging behind their counterparts in other leading industrialized nations. Would increasing the length of the school year or school day raise our students' achievement or would it be more advantageous to alter how we use the time we currently have? Moved by pressures of global competition and domestic pressures to raise achievement, many American school systems are experimenting with alternative instructional schedules in an attempt to find out.

Today, alternative instructional schedules are not uncommon. "Why operate on a calendar designed for the economy of the last century?" Kelly Johnson, communications coordinator for the National Association for Year-Round Education, asked Education World. "As we head into the 21st century, I don't know of very many children who must work on family farms. So why do we continue to implement a calendar which has no educational advantages?"

Whether it be a four-day school week, trimester schedules, year-round school, extending learning time, or delaying starting times for secondary schools based on the latest research about teenagers' sleeping and waking behaviors, there are more options for school calendars than ever before.


Although most of the nation's 52 million schoolchildren are still on traditional schedules, about 2 million attend school year-round; they attend school the same number of days as students on traditional schedules, but they get shorter breaks throughout the year.

Supporters of year-round schooling say it relieves overcrowding, avoids summer learning loss, reduces a parent's child-care burdens, and keeps bored kids off the streets. Slower children, those with learning disabilities or emotional problems, and those whose first language isn't English especially benefit from shorter breaks. Additionally, proponents say, by staggering students' vacations and schedules schools can increase capacity by 25 to 50 percent, avoiding the need to construct costly new buildings.

In reality, however, despite the areas in which year-round schooling cuts costs, it also incurs additional ones: administrative, utility, maintenance, transportation, and salary costs, and many enrichment opportunities occur during the traditional summer break, making them unavailable to students in year-round schools. So as quickly as fast-growing districts in Texas and California adopt year-round education, educators in more stable districts, citing among other reasons minimal if any improvement in test scores, are reinstating the traditional summer break.


After researchers found that adolescents actually need more sleep than children and adults, physicians began to lobby for later school start times for teens. Responding, several school districts adjusted their schedules, some starting high schools almost an hour and a half later than they previously had and middle schools almost two and a half hours later. Adolescents, researchers discovered, actually need about nine hours of sleep a night. Compounding that, puberty temporarily changes sleep patterns, prompting teens to have difficulty falling asleep before 11 o'clock, and making waking early even more problematic. As their weary parents have suspected all along, teens are literally in another time zone; they just don't function well before 9 a.m.! (See "Research Findings Show Impact of Later Start Times," Minneapolis Star Tribune, November 25, 1998.)

Peter F. Flynn, superintendent of schools in Fayette County, Kentucky, says that now that his district has adjusted school start times to accommodate the students' physiological needs, "We're seeing our attendance is up and our tardiness is down," Flynn stated in For Whom the Bell Tolls, a special report published by the American Association of School Administrators in the March 1999 issue of The School Administrator.

Kenneth Dragseth, superintendent of schools in Edina, Minnesota, says that students in his school district who attend schools that start later have higher grades than do students in schools with earlier start times. He told Education World, "It has been the single most significant thing we have done recently to improve student morale and attitudes. Sleep deprivation creates nervous, anxious, and exhausted students, not the type our teachers like to encounter in their classrooms."

"If I wanted to get the students at the high school to protest strongly about an issue, all I would have to do is to change back to the early start time at the high school," added Dragseth. "Students express that they are less tired, are more focused, get better grades, and are more alert throughout the day that under an earlier schedule. They comment that it fits their biological clock and makes them more rested."

Parents like it too. "Parents comment on the lack of stress in the morning at home due to a more leisurely preparation time for school," said Dragseth. "They find their children less stressed and more focused on school."

Mary A. Carskadon, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University and the director of sleep research at Brown-affiliated E. P. Bradley Hospital, cautions that changing school start times "cannot be done successfully without also teaching students, parents, and teachers about the importance of sleep. Students need to be educated about the need to stick to a reasonable bedtime, even if school starts later in the morning. Otherwise, many kids will say, 'Oh great, I can stay up an extra hour and a half,' and students will again be sleep deprived." (See "Sleep Research Sparks Eye- Opening Interest," The School Administrator, March 1999.)


When faced with soaring transportation costs and students on buses for as long as four hours each day, some rural school districts pared the fifth day of instruction into fourths and tacked this time onto the end of the remaining four weekdays, creating a four-day school week. Although implemented primarily for fiscal reasons, a four-day school week has many unexpected educational benefits, many people realized.

Lewis Diggs, superintendent of schools in Saratoga, Arkansas, found when his school district went on a four-day week, in addition to saving more than $40,000, his students' achievement scores actually rose one point. Diggs reports his findings in Why Four Days a Week Makes Sense for Us (The School Administrator, March 1999.)

In The Four-Day School Week, another School Administrator report, Jack McCoy, deputy director of learning services at the New Mexico Department of Education, said in his district's case attendance for teachers and students improved while scores on standardized achievement tests remained stable. Additionally, the attractiveness of a four-day workweek made staff recruitment easier. On the downside, with such long school days, a four-day school week might not be as attractive a choice for younger students as it could be for those who are older.


The school year for the 500 students at Westfield (Indiana) High School is divided into three parts, or trimesters. Those students have fewer classes but longer class periods. Teachers love it because they teach only four courses per trimester and a third fewer students.

Since instigating the trimester plan, Mark Keen, superintendent of Westfield-Washington Schools, told Education World that student attendance and achievement are up, discipline problems have declined, and many students now have the time to enroll in advanced courses, apprenticeships, mentoring, or internship programs. Others opt "to take a part-time load their senior year and work to earn money for college. They amass more credits than needed and still work."


Many school districts around the country tailor their calendar around events when there would be high rates of absenteeism otherwise. In West Virginia, most districts are closed for the entire week of Thanksgiving to accommodate both the holiday and hunting season, in the New Orleans area schools close for Mardi Gras plus the day before and after it, and in Aroostook County, Maine, high schools take a three-week break so students can work the local potato harvest.


Recently, several districts toughened their academic standards, stipulating that students who can not pass exit exams will not pass. From Seattle to Florida, students -- especially those with academic deficiencies -- face the prospect of more school.

A Seattle Times story, "Tougher Academic Standards May Require More Time in Class," presents the possibilities of before- or after-school instruction, evening or vacation-time instruction, Saturday and summer sessions, or a longer school year. Departing from the long-held belief that all students can be educated in 180 six-hour days -- or fewer in states that include days devoted to staff development in that total -- many educators now believe that some students need extra time to succeed. As those students face the prospect of additional school time, high-achieving students may best benefit from a more flexible schedule, one that allows them time to pursue other activities (such as college courses) that might enhance their education.

In addition to increasing the use of technology, and increasing flexibility in scheduling, some schools are considering the most controversial change of all: Devoting the entire school day exclusively to academics, meaning clubs and other activities would have to occur outside of school hours.

Cost estimates for increasing allocated time in school vary by state, but by one estimate it would cost approximately $50 million annually for each district in California to add a single instructional day. Another estimate, prepared for the National Education Commission on Time and Learning, predicted that increasing the school year nationally to 200 days would cost between $34.4 billion and $41.9 billion annually. (See WestEd's 1998 report, Improving Student Achievement by Extending School: Is It Just a Matter of Time?.)


Some countries whose students outperform ours actually have a shorter school year than we do. According to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, in four of the seven countries that outperform the United States in mathematics, students spend less time in class per week than U.S. students do and also less than the international average. In Sweden, for example, whose students were among the high performers at the senior-high level, the school year is only 170 days long. Does that mean that it is not the time spent in school that matters most?

Some educators propose that the amount of time spent in school matters less than how much or how little of that time is devoted to appropriate instruction. Research indicates when instructional time is mainly devoted to academic subjects, when classroom time is well managed, and when curriculum and instruction is provided at a level of difficulty appropriate to the individual student -- the subject matter matched to the readiness of the students to learn -- then students will learn. It is not the quantity but the quality of education time that is the critical determinant of how much students learn.


School assemblies, disruptive announcements over the public address system, passing between classes, disciplinary activities, ineffective instructional techniques, inappropriate curriculum, student inattention or absence -- all disrupt learning. Add to those things the inefficient classroom management practices used by teachers; by one estimate, 70 percent of U.S. teachers need to improve their classroom management skills! All those things add up to lots of squandered teaching time.

"In cases where time is not already well utilized, increasing allocated time is not likely to produce substantial gains in student achievement," stated the WestEd report. "In such cases, the first step should be to improve the quality of existing time."

Cooperative, small-group learning environments, encouragement to students to try to improve personal performance instead of performing better than classmates, peer tutoring, specific feedback on student work, clear expectations, parental involvement, and homework have beneficial effects on achievement, the report said.

Other factors such as how students spend their free time can also affect learning outcomes. For example, watching too much television or working too many hours per week can be detrimental, and extracurricular activities such as internships, community-service activities, part-time jobs, and sports can enhance student learning opportunities.

Alternative instructional scheduling can improve students' achievement, but there is a factor that matters even more. What seems to matter most is providing curriculum and instruction geared to the needs and abilities of students, engaging them so they will return day after day, and continuing to build on what they have learned. What matters most is not how much time a student spends in school, or the type of schedule in which he or she participates, but whether or not educators use effectively every hour that the student is there.


We've linked to on-line copies of a number of stories included in a special issue of The School Administrator devoted to a study of the school calendar. If you would like a copy of that special issue, call toll-free 1-888-PUB-AASA.


  • Improving Student Achievement by Extending School: Is It Just a Matter of Time? Written by Julie Aronson, Joy Zimmerman, and Lisa Carlos, this 1998 WestEd report frames the research on the complex relationship between time and learning, focusing primarily on the empirical evidence about how time affects student achievement. The report reveals that though the amount of time spent in school does matter, how much or little it matters depends on the degree to which it is devoted to appropriate instruction.

  • For Whom the Bell Tolls This School Administrator story (March 1999), from the American Association of School Administrators, details how adolescents who attend schools with early start times are frequently extremely sleep deprived. Districts from Virginia to Alaska have made or have contemplated making changes to the start time of the school day.

  • A Minneapolis Suburb Reaps Early Benefits from a Late Start In this School Administrator story (March 1999), the superintendent of Edina (Minnesota) schools describes what happened when his school district of 6,700 changed high-school start times from 7:25 to 8:30. Students attending schools that started later had higher grades than students in schools with earlier start times.

  • Why Four Days a Week Makes Sense for Us In this School Administrator story (March 1999), superintendent of schools Lewis Diggs discusses how his school district implemented a four-day school week.

  • The Four-Day School Week A School Administrator story (March 1999) discusses how several school districts in different states implemented a four-day school week and the results of the programs.

  • The School Calendar: It's Time to Make Time for Learning! This article provides an overview of different ways schools have structured their days to best accommodate student learning.


  • "Research Findings Show Impact of Later Start Times," by Kim Schneider, Minneapolis Star Tribune, November 25, 1998. This article explores the results a study on later start times. High-school students who started school later said they felt less depressed, missed less school, and earned higher grades than did students in other districts.

  • "Give Kids More School," USA Today, August 31,1992. This article is part of a debate on improving education. The article's view is that spending more time in school and less on vacation pays off.

  • "Should Kids Go to School Year-Round?" by Cesar G. Soriano, USA Weekend, May 29-31, 1998. Today, 2,460 U.S. schools are on a year-round calendar. This article explores whether year-round schooling is a smart idea or a senseless experiment.

  • "Three Semesters for Learning," by Mark F. Keen, The School Administrator, March 1999. The superintendent of Westfield-Washington Schools in Westfield, Indiana, discusses how his district's 500-student high school has benefited from a school year divided into three semesters, or trimesters.

  • "Sleep Research Sparks Eye-Opening Interest," by Millicaent Lawton, The School Administrator, March 1999. After describing some research on adolescent sleep patterns, this article cautions that schools must also teach students and parents about the need to stick to a reasonable bedtime, even if school starts later in the morning. Otherwise, many kids will say, "Oh great, I can stay up an extra hour and a half," and students will again be sleep deprived.

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