For most children in the United States, the word “summer” evokes images of a carefree two- to three-month-long escape from the classroom.
But that summer break looks different for those on year-round school calendars, also known as balanced school calendars.
What Is Year-Round Schooling?
School districts using a year-round or balanced calendar redistribute the standard 180 days of classroom instruction more evenly over the course of a year.
Although students at a school with a balanced calendar might only get four or five weeks off in the summer, they’ll also get two weeks or so off in the fall, winter and spring. Some schools on this calendar also use a multi-track system, meaning that students are assigned to different groups, each with its own vacation schedule.
Though the vast majority of schools using a year-round calendar feature 180 days of instruction, some districts have tried extended year-round calendars, which add on extra school days in an effort to increase student achievement. Experts note, however, that these are fairly rare in the United States.
There are many different ways to divide up the balanced calendar, but a common model is the 45/15 version, wherein students attend school for a 45-day period, followed by a 15-day vacation. This cycle repeats four times throughout the school year, taking into account holidays that take place throughout the year (students on a balanced calendar still receive three days off around Thanksgiving, for example).
How Year-Round Schooling Got Started
Though longer, year-round school calendars were fairly common in the early days of American schooling, the traditional nine-month calendar prevailed as the norm by the beginning of the 20th century.
The year-round calendar as we know it today was introduced in the 1970s, as school districts looked for a way to deal with rapidly increasing student populations. By scheduling students on different tracks with staggered vacations, administrators could expand the capacity of existing school buildings. However, the number of public schools using this calendar declined from 6% in 1999 to just 3% in 2018, according to an analysis published in EducationNext. Many districts that do year-round schooling are in the South and West.
But since the COVID-19 pandemic, a few states and districts are looking at balanced calendars as a way to combat the learning loss that occurred following the shift to remote and hybrid learning in 2020. For example in Washington, the state superintendent’s office used some of its emergency pandemic funding to introduce the Balanced Calendar Initiative, which has provided grants to more than 40 school districts to study the balanced calendar’s potential for their district.
And in South Carolina, about a quarter of the state’s school districts have switched over to the balanced calendar in the past three years, according to local news reports, with even more planning to make the change.
“The COVID-19 pandemic really gave school districts a reason to look at how we organize when teaching and learning happens,” says Latoya Dixon, assistant superintendent of academic innovation and professional learning at York School District 1 in South Carolina, which will be transitioning to a balanced calendar for the 2023-2024 school year.
Here are some of the pros and cons of year-round calendar systems.
Pros of Year-Round School
More Frequent, Evenly Spaced Breaks
One of the advantages of a balanced calendar is that students get more frequent breaks throughout the year, which proponents of the model say can help reduce burnout among teachers and students.
Daniel Jones, a public high school teacher and doctoral student in educational leadership at St. Louis University, says he suspects that longer breaks during the school year could have a positive effect on students’ mental health, particularly in a post-pandemic world.
Dixon also notes that in her state, students on the traditional calendar have a slightly longer semester in the spring than they do in the fall.
“In terms of instruction, a student who takes Algebra I first semester receives 87 days of instruction, versus a student who takes Algebra I second semester gets 93 days,” she says, noting that the balanced calendar levels out this difference by creating more even periods of instruction.
Year-round education allows for additional enrichment opportunities during the short breaks or “intercessions” that occur throughout the school year, allowing students to either catch up or get ahead in their studies.
Jones and Dixon agree that the year-round calendar can create some challenges for working parents who need to coordinate childcare during the added breaks throughout the year. To make up for that, many schools on balanced calendar systems offer additional instruction during those breaks.
“Some people have a misconception that year-round schools just let the kids go,” Jones says. “But they understand a lot of parents are working, so a lot of those schools will offer programming or enrichment opportunities during those intercessions.”
Less Summer Learning Loss
Advocates of year-round calendar systems often cite reduced summer learning loss as a reason to shift away from the traditional calendar.
The logic here seems sound — since students have shorter summer breaks, there’s less time to forget what they learned during the school year.
That said, a study by Paul von Hippel, associate dean for research at the University of Texas–Austin’s School of Public Affairs, found that while the year-round approach did increase summer learning, learning decreased during other times of the year, ultimately evening out the amount of learning loss between both calendars.
Cons of Year-Round School
Little Evidence of Academic Benefits
Von Hippel notes that much of the research cited in favor of the year-round calendar falls flat upon further scrutiny, as studies showing significant academic benefits tend to look at a fairly small sample size, and are often not even peer-reviewed.
He says studies that analyze data from several school districts show little in the way of significant educational improvements when schools switched to a year-round calendar — and some even see slight declines in academic performance.
“This is really what policymakers should be looking at,” von Hippel says.
Year-round education can pose a challenge for working parents who need to arrange childcare during breaks that don’t align with their work schedules. When her district was voting on whether or not to adopt the balanced calendar system, Dixon says this was the most frequent complaint that skeptics of the calendar brought up.
Though childcare may be hard enough to figure out during the summer, it can be even more challenging to schedule ways to keep your child safe and occupied during those additional breaks, when most full-day camps and recreation programs are not available. This challenge might even discourage some parents from staying in the workforce altogether — von Hippel cites a 2013 study that found mothers in districts on the year-round calendar were less likely to enter the workforce when their children started kindergarten.
It’s no secret that the summer is a popular time for families to take time off. Shortening the season can make it harder for families to find the time for traditional summer vacations like hiking, camping or spending time at a nearby beach.
A briefer summer break also makes it harder for kids to attend a sleepaway camp or for teens to work a summer job or internship.
For families with multiple children, planning a vacation on the year-round calendar can be especially tricky. This is particularly difficult on a multi-track system, where one child might be on break while another child is in class, von Hippel says.
And given the fact that families often plan vacations well in advance, the transition from a traditional calendar to a balanced one can also be challenging. In addition to childcare troubles, Dixon says some parents in her district voted against the switch because they’d already scheduled their summer vacations and would have to go through the trouble of rescheduling to accommodate the new calendar.
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