Does (constant #days) year-round schooling matter?

Some new research says no.  Steven C. McMullen and Kathryn E. Rouse, from their piece “The Impact of Year-Round Schooling on Academic Achievement: Evidence from Mandatory School Calendar Conversions,” in The American Economic Journal, report:

In 2007, 22 Wake County, North Carolina traditional calendar schools were switched to year-round calendars, spreading the 180 instructional days evenly across the year. This paper presents a human capital model to illustrate the conditions under which these calendars might affect achievement. We then exploit the natural experiment to evaluate the impact of year-round schooling on student achievement using a multi-level fixed effects model. Results suggest that year-round schooling has essentially no impact on academic achievement of the average student. Moreover, when the data are broken out by race, we find no evidence that any racial subgroup benefits from year-round schooling.

There is an ungated version here.


Ungated, PDF.

What is actually tested and concluded:

Our results imply that dividing a long summer break into more frequent shorter breaks does not have a positive impact on achievement as measured through standardized test scores.

And obvious caveats:

While these results are similar to others in the literature, the argument for year-round calendars does not depend solely on the estimated impact on academic performance. For example, the transition in Wake County was made in order to take advantage of cost savings, and many year-round schooling opponents cite negative impacts on the community and family life (Shields and Oberg 2000). Nevertheless, the quasi-experimental nature of our research design should help push this literature in a direction that will allow schools to make calendar decisions based on accurate information.

... I must be low on coffee, or the "There is an ungated version here" link didn't exist when I started writing my comment.

This is the kind of issue that needs to be examined using reduced form and only reduced form.

The model Wake is using seems almost designed for achievement-neutrality. With such short quarters and long breaks in between (9 weeks on, 3 weeks off) it seems like capacity was more of a concern than achievement. Because of this, I don't think this is really a fair assessment of whether or not YRS could benefit students so much as a test of whether it is better to take three months of vacation mostly all at once or in chunks is better. When I think of YRS addressing achievement, I think non-equal amount of instructional time (more in YRS) as driving that benefit. This is not what Wake has, and as such the lack of achievement should not be a surprising outcome. What we see instead IMO is a demonstration that the loss of momentum in education happens with breaks considerably shorter than the standard 3 month summer vacation. I suppose this isn't surprising--the goal was to keep the district from having to build more schools.

Marc is correct. As a resident, the reason for YRS was to deal with overcrowding and the continuing large annual increase in student population. As far as I know, it was never a means of improving student achievement.

The diversity assignment that have been going on for about the same time, however, is an attempt to break up poverty schools, therefore improving the academic achievement of low income kids. That has been ineffective.

The take-home of the study is that contrary to frequent claims the length of the summer break is not essential. They found that it is not: "the timing of learning is not important, only the amount of learning."

Put a little differently, I would say that it decomposes the two issues of amount of class-time versus the issue of loss-of-continuity of Summer break. Do kids lose a lot of their progress (or their 'soft skills') with the layoff?

In reality, they took the most convenient natural experiment they could find. But that's how "there is a literature on everything" comes to be.

However, they've only shown that any loss in performance due to loss-of-continuity takes three weeks or less. The next natural experiment would be to switch to a 3-weeks-per-month calendar and see if there is any improvement.

The thing I don't entirely get is why the summer vacation is uniformly at the same time, and when it's shortened, it's shortened by starting school in August, rather than ending later in June. Air-conditioning is expensive, and schools without will be miserable in the summer, but the specific months of greatest misery (or greatest expense for A/C) will vary around the country - in the Bay Area, a schedule with July, August and September off might make the most sense (October 1 was the warmest day here in 2 years), while other areas get miserable in early June. It might even make sense to take a long winter break, running March through November, so to avoid dealing with snow.

Since when was the goal of any aspect of public schooling high academic performance? A simple look at historical literacy rates or the impact of "the new math" on American science/mathematics performance tells us all we need to know about public schooling: It's more about satisfying social myths than imparting knowledge to children.

you don't even need to look at that data. Look at what the people designing the modern US public school system said about it.

Poor Malcom G...

This says nothing about the claim in Outliers--that improved academic performance results from longer school days and more school days in the year, not just the timing of the same # of school days.

No, it's Finland that disproves that claim.

I thought year-round school was an attempt to increase the utility of the school building throughout the year, as an improvement to just letting it lie fallow every summer?

Another magic bullet tried and failed.

High school athletes have the most to benefit from year-round schooling. Two (or three) a days were brutal. The one thing that could make teenage me wish I were in class instead.

Aside from learning outcomes (which, as other posters have pointed out, is (for better or worse) far from the only aim of the public school syutem) I do wonder though, if it would improve utility for students to have vacations distributed throughout the year rather than one massive one in summer and not very much else the rest of the year. In New Zealand for example, we had a much shorter summer break (6-7 weeks) and three 2-week vacations during the school year (as well as various public holidays), which always gave you something reasonably soon to look forward to. I tend to think a lot of students would prefer that rather than one massive boredom-inducing block and then not a lof of time off during the school year (on the other hand, that uniquely American institution of the four- or eight-week summer camp requires a long vacation).

The long American summer vacation is useful for several things:

1) It enables children to help their parents in the fields during the prime agricultural season.

2) It enables long summer camps.

3) It enables summer jobs.

4) It allows families to take long vacations with their children.

Obviously 1), the original reason, is no longer relevant with less than 2% of the population employed in agriculture (and its probably better at this point for small farmers to home school). Reason 3) is going away as the summer job is disappearing.

That leaves 2) and 4), and most families can't afford to take really long vacations anyway. These things can be fit into two week and three week breaks scattered throughout the year.

There is some psychological benefit for children, who generally hate school (I did well in school and liked learning things, and I hated school), to know in June and July that you don't even have to worry about school for a long time. But I think this is outweighed for kids in school in knowing that their next two or three week break is not far off.

Eventually switching to a year round calendar could benefit the school curriculum, since you don't have to do lessons plans involving starting every class in August or September, finishing in December, or starting every class in January and finishing in May or June. You can have much shorter classes or longer classes as needed. I don't think this benefit will emerge until years or even decades after switching to a year round system, for the same reason that we still have summer vacations in the first place decades after the labor force employed in agriculture was reduced.

I do oppose year round schemes that are back-door ways to increase the amount of time children are in school (better to improve quality than quantity).

As a recent high school graduate, I can say with certainty that no matter how short or long the break, there is going to be some knowledge lost from students. There is no way around the "summer education loss" at any given point in the year, even with year-round schooling. Even the three week break will cause some sort of loss of the information students are expected to retain - it is simply too much information at one time for some students.

On the other hand, loss of the typical summer vacation forces students to miss out on summer sports (this is the prime opportunity for baseball and softball players to be scouted for college as well as other sports) and year-round schooling also does not allow for students to hold summer jobs. Summer jobs usually pay enough money for the student to help out $2,000 at least with tuition for college. This alleviates some of the pressures of having to find a way to afford college, and year-round schooling does not allow for students to save up their money over the long summer break they typically have to work. This would also affect the economy because most grocery stores and smaller retail chains hire high school students who need the extra money for after graduation. Without these students available for the entire summer, most places won't hire them because of the chaotic schedule involved with year-round schooling.

On a lesser note, there are the typical summer family vacations. Most families take a trip to some tourist location over summer break without having to find loopholes in everyone's schedules. Now, these family bonding trips would be limited to two or three weeks during the summer instead of two or three months.

I always thought that it could perhaps be better to distibute students into more than yearly cohorts. The age differences between the oldest and youngest students is huge and the development of learning could be better linked to maturity of the brain. In any given group the birthday is one of the largest determinations of success. In additiAlso, it would allow the multiple age classes in older pupils that do seem to have a benefit. It may be harder in the beginning but it seems the current age cutoffs but the system seems archaic.

Year round operation does not improve learning outcomes because it is not "time out of school" that causes "loss of knowledge." Loss of knowledge is caused by not using that knowledge. Most middle school and high school courses proceed on the basis of units. Students "learn" a unit, have an assessment, and then go on to the next unit. Most of the knowledge from that unit doesn't come up again. Students have forgotten most of it within a few weeks, whether school is in session or not.

This is just another scam designed to distract the taxpayers away from the fact of public school incompetence.

Wrong question.

i.s.o 180 days/year you should go to 220 days per year. That's the right question.

I would like such studies to at least consider the effect on other people as well as that on the kids. On the one hand, having the summer off makes it possible for the kids to work (if jobs are available). On the other hand, those who can't or won't get jobs are then free to make too much mischief and noise.

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