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Myths abound in education, and we like to live by them. One is how we use time in schools. Contrary to myth, our school calendars were developed not as a way to let kids in an agrarian society go to school while still helping in the fields, but as an accommodation to urbanization and industrialization.

You know the myth: we still have an agrarian calendar that allows kids to go to school in winter and work in the fields during the summer months. But think about it: the busy times for agriculture are during spring planting and fall harvest. If we really had an agrarian school calendar, we would have two breaks, one in planting season and the other for harvest. Mid-summer, when days are long and there is less work to do in the fields, would surely allow kids time after school to tend crops.

In reality, our current school calendar is actually a byproduct of urbanization. With the rise of industry in the 19th century, more people crowded into cities. Urban areas were unpleasant places during summer months: horse manure and primitive sewage systems, combined with heat and population density, made them stifling and disgusting. Upper and middle classes would escape the urban heat for country getaways. So schools, which at that time were not universally attended (the first state to legislate compulsory attendance was Massachusetts in 1852; the last was Mississippi in 1917), shut down for summer vacation.

What both myth and history have in common is that our 21st century academic calendar is rooted in 19th century needs. Thanks to modern conveniences, schools can now comfortably serve students through the summer months, and schools now serve all tiers of our society. So what kind of calendar makes sense?

For starters, our academic year is too short. According to the National Center on Time and Learning, students should have at least 1440 hours of school per year -- that number makes more sense when you realize that it equals 180 school days times eight hours per day. However, very few schools around the country have that much time in session. Most states require 180 days of school per year; Colorado is one of only five states that requires less than 175 days. Roaring Fork Schools have more days per year than most districts in Colorado at 174, as well as slightly longer days at about seven and a half hours. Factoring in early release Wednesdays, our students still spend about 2000 hours less per year than recommended.

That said, there is strangely little hard evidence that lengthening the school year leads to more learning. This is mostly because the real world doesn’t provide the scientific conditions to isolate variables and randomize children in a controlled experiment. Even international comparisons don’t show a straight line between longer school years and higher reading scores. But consensus among researchers seems to be that more time, if used well, will increase learning, especially for low-income and minority students.

One reason that low-income students seem to benefit from more time in school is the opportunity gap that exists during summer vacation and after school. While upper- and middle-income kids enjoy enriching learning opportunities with their families, lower-income families are less able to provide the same rich learning opportunities. Lengthening the school year might level the playing field by providing more enrichment opportunities for low-income students.

Of course, the number of school days is not merely driven by the research on learning: time is money, and each additional school day costs the school district about $200,000. That’s an incremental day on top of fixed operating costs. So getting to that 180-day target would be an expensive proposition.

As the Roaring Fork Schools embark on a calendar planning process for 2018-19 and beyond, we should plan to use the time we have in school as well as possible and to prioritize additional time for our neediest students. Evidence suggests that two highest priorities for community investment should be full-day kindergarten for all students and finding ways to provide more extended-day and extended-year enrichment opportunities for low-income students.

Evidence is also strong about some of the qualitative aspects of the school calendar. Teenagers need more sleep and tend to benefit from a later start to the school day. This is challenging because transportation schedules, after-school activities schedules, and schedules for students who care for younger siblings are all forces of resistance for a later start.

Finally, teachers need time for planning, professional development, reflection, and recuperation. Research strongly ties teacher collaborative planning and professional development to student learning. Though parents may be inconvenienced by shortened school days on Wednesdays and professional development days throughout the year, that professional learning time for teachers pays dividends for their children’s learning.

School schedules need to optimize learning time by making every minute count, reducing wasted time such as transitions, and filling the day with engaging and rigorous learning activities and those that support learning. Evidence also argues for providing time for structured play, recess, and lunch.

Experience tells me that calendar planning processes tend to meet the needs of the 19th century economy. But let’s see now far we can go toward making next year’s calendar support student learning for the future.

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