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No summer vacation?

Feb 10, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

Legislature's bill permitting year-round school year is worth testing

In his commendable book "Outliers," journalist Malcolm Gladwell tries to get to the bottom of why some people, institutions and systems work better than others. His basic conclusions are both simple and innovative.

Why are some junior hockey players so much better than others? Simple, says Gladwell: the kids with birthdays earlier in the years usually are the best. Why were the Beatles more successful than the other bands of the "British invasion" of the early 1960s? Because they had spent 10,000 hours performing for audiences in German nightclubs, far more than any other group. Practice made perfect.

When it came to education, Gladwell wanted to know why students in other nations, particularly in Asia, so consistently outpaced American kids in standardized measurements of basic academic performance.

His conclusion: Because the Asian kids went to school year-round.

This is a painfully simplified summary of Gladwell's very fun and interesting book, but it fits. Asian kids get better scores because they are in school more.

Just now the Wyoming Legislature is debating a bill which would allow Wyoming school districts to experiment with a 12-month school calendar. It would not be mandatory, but school districts that were interested could try it, evaluate it, and then decide whether to implement in permanently.

Schools could adopt a 12-month school calendar without the long summer vacation now in effect. In its place would be several breaks of 2-3 weeks, about the same duration as the current Christmas break on the school calendar.

The days of instruction would remain at about 180 annually, just distributed differently. For example, there would be a three-week break around Memorial Day and another around the county and state fairs. There would be another one in early to mid-fall, the usual Christmas break, and the usual spring break.

What there wouldn't be is the gaping hole in the educational timeline that is now the three-month summer hiatus. Ask any teacher and you're likely to hear that summer vacation sets many students back in their learning. The first weeks of the new school term in the fall too often must be spent on review and remediation.

Teachers often remark as well that the best time of the school year for learning is the period between spring break and the end of school. Then, just when the kids are really rolling, school lets out for three months.

There would be objections and other obstacles to a year-round school calendar. Teachers, staff, students and parents are accustomed to the long break. It is a time for summer jobs, summer travel and summer fun. In agriculture families, summer labor provided by school-aged children can be vital to farm and ranch operations.

Sports teams might find it complicated to have seasons disrupted by a three-week school break, when it could be harder to schedule games and practices. And school construction and maintenance could be affected if the long summer break isn't available for major work.

But if Malcolm Gladwell and many other education analysts are right, then this is worth a shot. If it's true that students learn more, retain more, test better, achieve more and are better prepared for college and the work force if they go to school on a more consistent year-round pattern, then why shouldn't it be tested?

There are strong opponents to the bill in the Wyoming Legislature, and it might well fail or simply be allowed to wither. But if it does pass, then one or more Fremont County schools ought to give its provisions a try, with good intentions and high hopes.

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