David Page: Year-round school doesn’t fix setback

Originally published by the Knoxville News Sentinel on April 18, 2015

By David Page – Guest Blogger


When I first looked at the Year-Round Calendar, i.e. a Balanced Calendar, it seemed like a great idea. In fact, in 2007, I wrote a column for the Knoxville News Sentinel, and I argued that Knox County Schools should adopt a Year-Round Calendar.

I was wrong.

The move to a Year-Round Calendar is a mistake and one that I hope Knox County is wise enough not to make.

One of the central arguments for the Year-Round Calendar is summer regression. The argument goes like this. After a long summer break, teachers must spend several weeks reviewing last year’s material. This review is inefficient and a shorter summer break would eliminate this problem.

Sounds extremely logical and reasonable, right?

That’s exactly what I thought. My brain, however, made a classic “thinking” error, which Daniel Kahneman discusses in his 2011 book “Thinking Fast and Slow”.

Kahneman tells us that our brains have two modes of thinking. One mode is fast, instinctive and emotional. The other mode is slower, more deliberate and more logical. Our fast thinking tends to dominate our lives and just drags the slow thinking along for the ride.

In 2007, my fast mode immediately formed an opinion, and then my slow mode had to find logical reasons for support. Our slow thinking and the associated cerebral activity gives us the illusion that our opinions are logical and well conceived. Yet, it is only an illusion as emotion often nudges our initial opinion.

Yes, it would be nice if we would spend more time looking at both sides of an argument, withholding judgement, carefully weighing the pros and cons, and only then forming an unbiased opinion. Unfortunately, we are not wired that way.

Kahneman has helped me to swallow my pride and take a second look at modified calendars. My hope is that the Knox County School Board will also take the time to study the issue with a little slow thinking.

The first error in fast thinking that the Board will discover is that research on modified calendars is at best mixed and at worst fails to show any advantage. More importantly, to the extent summer regression is an issue (primarily among low income students), modified calendars are not the solution.

Paul Von Hippel, a sociologist at Ohio State University, asserts “year-round schools don’t really solve the problem of the summer learning setback – they simply spread it out across the year.”

Thus, the original argument for Year-Round Calendars is wrong. Which is to say that two students–one on a modified calendar and one on a traditional calendar, all things being equal–will learn the same amount.

The second common error is that our traditional calendar harks back to the days when most East Tennesseans were farmers. This error is not so much wrong as a fallacy in logic.

The thinking goes like this. The traditional calendar is based on a harvest cycle. We are no longer farmers. Therefore a harvest-based calendar is bad for our schools.

To understand this fallacy, let me illustrate with an analogy. The wheel is based on technology from ancient farmers. We are no longer farmers. Therefore, the wheel is a bad idea for modern man to use.

We can all agree that wheels are great things, and the mere fact that they were developed in ancient times says very little about their utility.

Finally, Board members should be careful to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Summer breaks are a valuable education opportunity for children. Granted, they are not traditional book-learning education, but the creative skills that children gain during summer breaks is not measured by classroom tests.

Michael Barone in his 2004 book “Hard America, Soft America” tells us that America produces the worst (on standardized tests) 18 year olds in the world but somehow magically produces the best (most creative) 30 year olds.

While our schools lag the world in high scores on standardized tests, we lead the world in creative out-of-the-box thinkers. Acknowledging Barone, I can not help but wonder what magical role summer breaks have played in the creative development of our children.

Maybe we need a little more slow thinking over the summer rather some fast thinking about the harvest cycle.

David L. Page is a Knox County resident and is wrong more often than he would like to admit. David holds a PhD in engineering from the University of Tennessee and can be reached at davidpage@ieee.org.

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