By Nancy Duchesneau
Since 2006, Michigan has required public schools to start the fall semester after Labor Day so that the school year would not interfere with the tourism industry in the state. This requirement may be rolled back for the coming school year if Senate Bill 0271 passes, giving districts the flexibility to start the school year earlier. However, if districts choose to start the year earlier, they would be prohibited from holding school on Mondays or Fridays prior to Labor Day, meaning that districts would only be allowed to have a 3-day schoolweek during August. This prohibition is meant to limit the impacts on tourism by ensuring 4-day weekends through the end of August.
Although there is evidence to suggest that August is an important time for the tourism industry and thus is important for the economic prosperity of the state, the importance of providing an academic calendar that provides academic success should not be dismissed.
Evidence for starting school earlier
Despite the current restrictions on starting school before Labor Day, over 50 school districts in Michigan have sought waivers to exempt themselves from this rule. Why would districts want to do this? The answer is that overwhelming evidence suggests that students often lose academic skills and knowledge over summer vacations. This phenomenon, called summer learning loss, disproportionately affects students from low socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds. Studies show that both low-SES and high-SES students lose math knowledge over the summer, but only low-SES students experience summer losses in reading. In fact, high-SES students have been shown to increase their reading skills over summer vacations. This disproportionality in effects suggests that academic achievement gaps can increase substantially over summer vacation due to differences in how summer vacations are used by high- and low-SES families.
One option to combat summer learning loss is to decrease the length of summer vacation. Evidence of this result can be seen in studies on year-round schooling, in which schools maintain the same number of school days but reorganize them so that there are more frequent, but shorter breaks instead of one long summer break. Year-round schooling has been shown to decrease summer learning loss, reduce teacher and student burnout, and especially benefit low-SES students.
Let the locals decide
Clearly, the income from tourism is important to the state of Michigan. However, local education agencies know best whether the local context calls for shortening summer breaks. Simply because a state allows locals the flexibility to start school earlier does not mean all districts will choose to do so. If the population within one district has a strong preference to keep August open for vacationing (in the Upper Peninsula for example), then that district can choose to do so. However, the current law puts an unreasonable prohibition on districts that would greatly benefit from shortening the summer vacation. Thus, the current law is disproportionately harming low-SES families.
Additionally, it is unclear whether the economic benefits of requiring schools to start after Labor Day outweigh the economic benefits of limiting learning loss. Consider, for example, all of the extra resources that must be used to address summer learning loss in the Fall, and what savings might accrue if we could devote those resources elsewhere.
Furthermore, as for the prohibition on Monday and Friday classes: It should be removed from the senate bill altogether. If a school district finds it important to start school earlier than Labor Day, then it is probably important enough to provide full instructional weeks. Ask teachers about their experiences with teaching during Thanksgiving week and they can tell you – 3-day school weeks often see students checked out by the first day of the week, severely limiting the possible benefits of the policy. The answer to improving academic achievement in the state is not to offer school districts a partial option to evidence-based solutions. The answer is to give local education authorities the option to fully implement an evidence-based policy with fidelity.
Contact Nancy: Duchesn4@msu.edu