Shorter Breaks Help Kids Recall Lessons
Sunday, September 2, 2007; 12:03 AM
ARLINGTON, Va. -- While it's the start of the school year for most U.S. students, children at Barcroft Elementary have been at their desks for nearly a month _ and they're fine with that.
The suburban Washington school is among 3,000 across the nation that have tossed aside the traditional calendar for one with a shorter summer break and more time off during the rest of the year. The goal: preventing kids from forgetting what they have learned.
Barcroft's principal, Miriam Hughey-Guy, pushed for the new calendar in hopes of boosting student achievement. She had read studies showing the toll a long summer break takes on what students remember, and she figured that shorter breaks also would help the school's many immigrants keep up their English skills.
Tests given to kids in the spring and fall show children generally slide in math and reading during the traditional summer break lasting 10 to 12 weeks, says Harris Cooper, director of the education program at Duke University. Both poor students and their wealthier counterparts lose math skills, and kids from low-income families also decline in reading. More than half of Barcroft's students are poor.
There hasn't been rigorous research into whether students at schools where summer breaks are short do better than kids attending other schools. But existing comparisons suggest the modified calendars have a small positive effect on student achievement. The impact appears to be somewhat bigger for low-income children.
Ron Fairchild, executive director of the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University, says reconfiguring the school calendar simply makes sense.
"You would expect an athlete or a musician's performance to suffer if they didn't practice," said Fairchild, whose organization advocates for educational summertime opportunities for kids.
There are about 3,000 U.S. schools using alternate calendars like the one at Barcroft, where July is the only full month off, according to the National Association For Year-Round Education.
The number of schools on modified calendars with shorter summer breaks more than doubled in the last 15 years. Today, 46 states have schools operating on these calendars _ up from 23 states in 1992. The entire Hawaiian school system recently moved to a nontraditional calendar with a seven-week summer break.
A goal of the federal No Child Left Behind law is to get all students reading and doing math at their grade level by 2014. That has placed enormous pressure on schools to try new things, including reconfiguring calendars and schedules.
Teachers typically spend time at the beginning of each year reviewing the previous year's lessons. Schools that have fewer weeks off in the summer may need to do less of that.
It's mostly elementary schools using the modified calendars. For older students, that could make it hard to get summer jobs or participate in competitive sports programs.