Back to School: A Time to Rethink Time

Milton Chen:

Another year has passed, and American schools are still captives of an outdated calendar. It’s mid-August, and the world of education is awakening from its three-month slumber. The seasons of schooling set the schedules for close to seven million K-12 educators and staff and fifty-five million students and families. Yet our schools and universities stand alone in hewing to a calendar with a long summer vacation added to holiday and spring breaks. No other sector of our society — government, business, transportation, health care, manufacturing — considers its year to be composed of 180 days or 36 weeks.
Add to this “outer limit” the “inner limit” of the 50-minute period of most secondary schools, and we have a pigeonholed system of schooling. This time frame was born out of the Carnegie Unit, which requires 120 hours of class time for high school courses. (Five such periods each week for 31 weeks achieves the 120-hour requirement.) The Carnegie Unit grew out of the early work of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, endowed by industrialist Andrew Carnegie in 1906, and surely it’s time for education to leave behind a 100-year-old idea.

2 thoughts on “Back to School: A Time to Rethink Time”

  1. Terrific post, as is the further link to “Time Out”. We are facing profound challenges to public education. It is imperative for us to think outside the box. And there is perhaps no bigger box we finds ourselves in than the school calendar, and clock. In the years ahead, as we face ever-growing budget cuts, I hope serious consideration will be given to how we budget and use time in this district.

  2. Year-round schooling is not a terribly radical idea. My brother teaches in one of the largest and fastest-growing districts in Missouri (not generally viewed here in Wisconsin as a bastion of educational excellence), and they have year-round schooling. They went to it several years ago out of necessity — given huge enrollment growth, it was the only way they could squeeze in all of their students into their existing buildings. Now their enrollment has steadied, they have caught up in terms of building capacity, and have maintained a year-round calendar (three-to-four breaks a year lasting @ 3 weeks). Why did they keep it? Overwhelming support from BOTH teachers and parents. Teachers find students “lose” less during the shorter breaks. Parents viewed the long summer break as much more inconvenient than the shorter breaks — any family vacation can be scheduled around a three-week-plus break. Taxpayers like to see their buildings used year-round.
    Biggest impediment? Seriously — air conditioning. It’s costly to retro-fit older buildings with AC, and I’d doubt you’d find much public support for year-round schooling if kids were sweltering in classrooms. But then you’d have to find public support for the expense of adding AC to lots of school buildings.

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