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A look at advocacy research and misinformation used by proponents to sell communities on year-round calendar reforms

School Calendars and Modern-Day Workforce Realities: Distortions by Fred Hess of American Enterprise Institute

It appears the YRS /school calendar promoters are taking a new tactic: Selling calendar change as the answer to modern-day workforce realities.  They haven't been able to sell it as an effective academic or economic change, so now they are going for the pocketbook issues.  School calendar change is false economics.

 

 In the following rebuttal to a column by Frederick M. Hess we show why the traditional school calendar is still the best educational bang for the buck.

 

The  Hess piece was posted July 12, 2006 by the Washington Post on its Think Tank Town website. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/11/AR2006071100871.html?referrer=emailarticle.)

 

Rebuttal comments are inserted in the Hess article.

 

It is important to note that Fred Hess works for the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank that represents and promotes Business Roundtable viewpoints, which include lengthening the school year for various profit-motivated reasons.  The Business Roundtable was founded in 1972, within months of the formation of the forerunner organization of the National Association for Year-Round Education, which has made millions as promoters and consultants for year-round school.

 

The respondent, Billee Bussard, is a semi-retired journalist who has been studying the year-round calendar since 1992, and editor of the website, www.SummerMatters.com, which is part of a national network of groups and non-groups of citizens opposed to shrinking summer vacation and mandatory summer school sessions for all children.

 

Summer Vacation of Our Discontent

By Frederick M. Hess
Special to washingtonpost.com's Think Tank Town
Wednesday, July 12, 2006; 12:00 AM

Can our kids afford to take summer vacation? Right now, about 50 million children are on summer vacation across the United States. Many are discovering new interests at summer camp, playing ball at the Y, or traveling with Mom and Dad. But millions of others are loitering in parking lots and shopping malls, cruising iffy websites, and slouching toward academic disaster. For this second group, it's time to take a fresh look at the traditional summer break.

When year-round school calendars were first used in the early 1900s, the chief reason cited among the supporters, which included the captains of industry, was to remove the idle, unsupervised, mischief-making children from city streets. But just like today, the unstated motive was to provide baby-sitting for parents who toiled 12 hours or longer in factories.  Interestingly, the reversal of what had been a declining average American workweek occurred about 1972, the same year Business Roundtable AND a year-round school advocacy group formed.

Summer vacation once made good sense -- back when we lived in a brawn-based economy, academic achievement mattered less, an absence of air conditioning or modern hygiene turned crowded schools into health risks, and children had moms who were home every day.

Hess fails to note the high costs of cooling schools in these days of unstable energy prices, nor does he address the associated health risks of placing schools on a year-round calendar that include:

1)     Higher ozone levels associated with summer heat, that pose health risks, and that are exacerbated by emissions from school-related traffic (as Georgia transportation experts and school officials in California have noted). Higher ozone levels have long-term consequences for the still-developing lungs of young children, put children and adults with asthma and respiratory problems at greater risk, and contribute to global warming.

2)     Summer heat creates dangerous health risks for the outdoor activities of schoolchildren. Heat related deaths of young athletes on football practice fields and heat-related ailments that sent schoolchildren to the hospital have been reported numerous times.

3)     Children in classrooms face health risks when air-conditioning fails, which is not uncommon in year-round schools because of equipment failures, which increase because maintenance problems increase when there is no school “downtime” to do necessary maintenance and repairs.  Routine brownouts in California schools because of energy shortages in high-demand summer months compromise the learning environment and create health risks. 

Historian Kenneth Gold has noted that summer vacation, as we know it, was an invention of the mid-19th-century belief that "too much schooling impaired a child's and a teacher's health." Community leaders fretted that summer was a "period of epidemics, and most fruitful of diseases generally," and sought to keep children at home or send them to the countryside.

In that era, the nation's first professional educators believed that too much schooling would exhaust both teacher and student. They thought that placid summers under parental supervision would be more beneficial than time spent in humid, crowded schools.

The era of summer leisure has also been an era of great creativity and invention.  Where might this nation be today had there not been time to tinker, read, and dream for a teenager named Bill Gates or the Orville and Wilber Wright brothers?  How many millionaires found their niche or developed their passion as a result of a summer job or a summer experience?

Today, things have changed. We know that, for today's children, knowledge and academic skills will be critical to their future success and happiness. In many communities, children are safer in well-run schools than they are at home alone.

Changing the school calendar increases the problem of latchkey children because working parents find it difficult to find or too expensive to provide childcare for the short vacation periods of a year-round calendar.  Experts that monitor gang activity in Los Angeles note a corresponding rise in gangs and the growth of year-round school, citing the related problem of latchkey children who become easy prey for street thugs.

Other advanced nations don't provide an American-style summer vacation. Most industrialized nations offer no more than seven consecutive weeks of vacation. Meanwhile, American school districts offer up to thirteen.

The average U.S. summer vacation period today is 10 to 11 weeks—about three weeks difference than the industrialized nations referenced, nations where the workers also get breaks throughout the year and where the average workweek is significantly shorter than for Americans so there is more family vacation leisure time.    Since American workers now have the longest workweek of the industrialized nations, changing the school calendar will result in American workers having even less time for leisure time with their families.  Fact is Americans work longer and harder than their counterparts and the business sector wants to change the school calendar so they can work longer and harder. That’s their plan for competing against slave wages in the global marketplace.

In a long-gone world of plentiful manufacturing jobs and self-contained economies, such comparisons mattered less. Today, however, our children will find themselves competing with peers from Europe, India, and China for lucrative and rewarding brain-based jobs.

You only have to look at the American brain-based jobs outsourced to the educated in Europe, India and China to understand the true profit motivations behind Business Roundtable dictated school reform: High Skills for Lower Wages and Longer Workweeks and Work Days.

Summer vacation can also be a massive inconvenience for today's middle-class families. In the 1960s, reports the Population Resource Center, more than 60% of families consisted of a father working out of the house, a stay-at-home mother, and multiple children. Now, as U.S. Census data show, two-thirds of American children live in households where two parents work or with a single working parent, meaning no one is home to supervise children during the summer. For these families, summer vacation can be more an obstacle than a break. Parents must find ways to occupy their children's time and to monitor their socializing and web usage from work.

The question we should be asking here is WHY is it necessary for people to work so hard just to make ends meet and why aren’t employers doing more to accommodate single mothers and two-parent working households?

The Urban Institute reports that, at most, just 30% of school-aged children in families with an employed primary caretaker are cared for by a parent during the summer.

No mention is made here of the supervision arranged for these children with other adults, such as grandparents, other family members, neighbors or older siblings.

 The Urban Institute study also notes that forty-one percent of working families with school-age children pay for child care during the summer, typically spending about 8% of their summertime earnings. Meanwhile, expensive school facilities, computers, texts, and transportation sit idle.

Let’s weigh this cost of childcare, which is tax deductible, by the way, with the cost of operating schools in the heat of summer in an era of unstable energy prices and costs for air-conditioning and school transportation.  Put pencil to paper and you find when you factor in taxpayer costs for teaching staff and higher energy costs, that keeping schools open in more moderate weather days provides the best education bang for the buck. 

But the biggest problem with summer vacation today may be its impact on the academic achievement of low-income kids. In scores of studies, researchers¿ including scholars at places like the Johns Hopkins Center for Summer Learning and the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory -- have reported that these students lose significant academic ground in the summertime, while their more advantaged peers -- those more likely to read and attend pricey summer camps -- do not.

“Summer learning loss” is a red herring argument. Keep in mind there is a difference of about four weeks between a year-round calendar summer vacation and a traditional calendar summer vacation. Can one month make that much difference? Hardly! Other studies also show that when poor children are involved in summer activities through churches, community recreational programs, the YWCA and YMCA, etc., they return to school on near par with their middle class counterparts whose parents provide learning opportunities.  There are ways to keep even poor children engaged in learning activities during summer, but doing so takes a creative approach and works at odds with the true profit-motivated agenda for changing the school calendar.  Even researches like Harris Cooper at John Hopkins admit the differences are not significant in academic performance of year-round school students and traditional calendar students.

This has been a big factor in aggravating the "achievement gap" for urban and minority children. Programs with extended school years have had much success in boosting the achievement of these kids. The widely praised KIPP Academies, for instance, have employed a lengthened school year and a mandatory 3-4 week summer school session to boost achievement among their predominantly minority and urban students.

The dirty little secret that skews the performance claims of the KIPP schools is the students and the parents who enroll their children represented a highly motivated group, and not the general population. So, of course their scores are going to be better, whether the school operates on a year-round calendar OR a traditional calendar.  Their teachers also work long days and are constantly on call. Their teacher turnover and burnout rate is also very high, according to researchers.

Today, "modified-calendar" schools exist in 46 states but enroll barely two million kids -- about 5% of all K-12 students. Why aren't more schools offering an extended academic calendar?

Once again, the devil is in the details, which Fred Hess conveniently ignores.  The fact of the matter is the majority of enrollment in year-round schools has been for the last three decades and remains in high-growth states west of the Mississippi where the multi-track year-round calendar has been used to expand school capacity and where feeder schools have been placed on a single track calendar so families with children at different levels of schooling can attempt to have vacation breaks at the same time, which is not always possible even with such an arrangement. Why aren’t more schools switching? Because much of our society now functions around a traditional school calendar and parents want that long summer window of opportunity to arrange family time together.

One fierce opponent is the "summer activity industry." The nation's golf courses, amusement parks, and beachside resorts depend heavily on a cheap teen workforce. Movie theaters want teens with spending money, and the summer camp industry depends on families needing a place for their kids.

The fierce proponents of school calendar change are the “consultant industry” that makes $2,000 a day promoting the idea and American industries that hope eventually to tap the huge pool of high school teen labor to work for low wages year-round as part of a “school-to-work” graduation requirement that is incrementally creeping into schools. Currently, there are some 17 million schoolchildren in grades 9 through 12 who could be added to the low-wage workforce to do  hard-to-fill grunt work jobs under the guise of receiving workforce preparedness.  Adding another 17 million workers to the American workforce will create more competition for jobs and work to further suppress wages. Let’s not forget that summer-related industries are a significant chunk of the nation’s economy.  Why would be want to disrupt a system that provides a huge segment of college-bound students and their families with money they will need to get an education? 

Teachers unions, too, are reluctant to see the school year extended. Efforts to add even two or three days to the academic year typically provoke objections from teachers and angry opposition from union officials.

Teachers oppose the calendar change because of the academic and economic detriments of a year-round calendar cited in the Williams v. California lawsuit settled out of court in 2004.  Expert testimony in that case links lower test scores and deteriorating schools and learning environment to a year-round calendar.

Let's be clear: This is not a "national problem" or a uniform one. Summer vacations are still a wonderful time for many families and communities. Legislators need not pursue one-size-fits-all solutions to "fix" the school calendar.

Rather, it's time to acknowledge that 19th-century school practices may be a poor fit for many of today's families. It should be much easier for interested families to find schools that operate into or through the summer.

What it is time to admit is that until working Americans wake up, the industrial elite will continue to squeeze American workers and their families. Their strategy for competing in a global economy is cutting benefits, shrinking wages, and working Americans longer and harder.  If America’s industrial elite were really concerned about the children of working Americans they would be providing more on-site daycare, on-sight schools, living wages, flexible work hours and adding health benefits instead of shrinking them. 

State officials should strike down laws -- often supported by the summer recreation industry -- that restrict the permissible school year for most schools. They should also help provide the operational funds necessary to support schools that operate through the summer.

Evidence of a public backlash to the school calendar scheme are the laws being passed in more and more states for uniform school start dates closer to Labor Day. These are efforts initiated by parents, not “summer industries.”  The business elite calendar reformers, who quickly paint them as enemies of education when they raise legitimate objections to calendar change, have effectively marginalized representatives of summer industries. The outcry for uniform school start date legislation is a result of parent anger over the disruptive year-round calendar and early school start dates that forced their children into hot classrooms in the dog days of summer. The business elite, whom Fred Hess represents, would rather operate in a climate where school districts can be individually politically maneuvered to do their bidding. 

School boards and superintendents should encourage more of their schools to move in this direction and appropriately compensate teachers and staff. Extending the school year will have the added benefit of helping to make teaching a full-time, more lucrative profession for educators who choose to work in these schools.

In one breath Hess says we should not have a “one-size-fits-all” solution and in the next he says let’s everyone do it my way: “School boards and superintendents should encourage more of their schools to move in this direction.”   In other words, eliminate school calendar laws advocated by parents because they are obstacles to the business sector’s school reform and profit plans.

Additional schooling should not be an invitation to drudgery or an attack on childhood. It would allow schools to include more recess and athletics throughout the year, give teachers more time to conduct rich and imaginative lessons, and provide more time for music and the arts¿ all without compromising academic instruction.

What Hess is asking is for parents to butt out of the business of educating their children. If you want music and arts lessons for your kids, let the schools choose; forget private teachers and summer enrichment camps for the arts. If your child is interested in sports, let the schools do it according to a plan prescribed by the Business Roundtable.  Forget Little League, Pop Warner, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Brownies and Blue Birds.  Let the schools, which the business sector wants turned over to the private sector, provide it all.  You birth them, the business sector molds them to specifications.

Summer vacation can be a grand thing. But in the 21st century, for many children and families, it may also be an anachronism.

Bottom line is there is no time for leisure time in the dog-eat-dog global economy the business elite has mapped out in its cradle-to-grave plans for America’s “human capital”—their label for our children.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and currently working on Emancipating Education, a book that examines why American schools look like they do and how we might reinvent them for the 21st century.

 

This site is under construction: Look for the  page entry in early August. 

A look at  the flawed studies used to sell the year-round calendar as summarized  by academic researchers,  grassroots organizations,  task force study groups and individuals,  including Robert Rosenfeld and   Jo-Ann Taylor (see also: History & Hype).