Provinces should allow schools to schedule their own schoolyears

Printer-friendly version
Appeared in the Western Standard, July 19, 2023
Provinces should allow schools to schedule their own schoolyears

If you have young children, there’s a good chance you’re already looking forward to sending them back to school in September. No doubt there was a sense of excitement when they came home for the summer. But now the weeks are dragging on and the kids are glued to their screens.

It’s often assumed that the two-month summer break started as a way of making it easier for children to work on the farm during the summer. However, this is a myth. In reality, the summer break began in cities where wealthy families and other suburbanites made plans to flee the summertime heat. Shutting schools down during the summer accommodated their schedules and made it possible for teachers to have an extended break.

Regardless of how the summer break began, circumstances are now different. For schools that have air conditioning or are in areas that don’t get as hot, the outside temperature is less of an issue. We also know that an extended break is detrimental to student learning. Experts have even coined a term for it—summer learning loss.

Although studies are mixed, one thing that comes through loud and clear is that students forget a lot of what they’ve learned during the schoolyear, which is why teachers usually begin the new schoolyear in September with a significant amount of review. If they don’t do this, students will fall further behind.

Importantly, summer learning loss is most pronounced among students from disadvantaged homes because these are the students whose parents are least able to hire academic tutors, pay for summer camp or buy books for their home libraries. As a result, their summer learning loss is the most substantial.

While an extended summer break is the norm in North America, it’s not universal in other parts of the world. For example, the Australian schoolyear is divided into four terms, with each term lasting nine to 11 weeks. Their summer break goes from mid-December to mid-January and lasts only about one month. Japan’s schoolyear begins in April and goes until March and has three terms of roughly equal length.

Here in Canada, some schools in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario have year-round schooling, also known as a “balanced schoolyear.” Typically, these schools have a one-month summer break (usually July) and several shorter breaks throughout the schoolyear. The total number of school days remains the same.

Obviously, year-round schooling isn’t for everyone. Some families thrive on a traditional calendar and make good use of their summer break. Anyone who prefers the current calendar should be able to attend a school that operates under this schedule.

However, given the obvious advantages of year-round schooling, it’s unfortunate that this option is not more widely available. Summer learning loss is a significant problem and shortening the summer break, while adding in shorter breaks throughout the rest of the year, seems like a sensible way to address this problem.

Unfortunately, provincial regulations tend to be quite rigid, and this results in a one-size-fits-all school calendar. For example, 20 years ago the Manitoba government decreed that the schoolyear cannot begin prior to Labour Day. This means that Manitoba schools cannot start in August, even if they wanted to. Ironically, the government admitted that this decision had more to do with accommodating vacation schedules and promoting tourism than with helping students learn.

Even in provinces that allow more flexibility, public schools can only revise their calendar if it’s approved by their school board. While some school boards are open to year-round schooling, others are not.

So what’s the solution?

Simply put, loosen regulations on when schools can be open and also allow parents to enroll their children in the school of their choice. This would enable school administrators to accommodate the wishes of parents. As long as students receive a quality education, it shouldn’t matter which school they attend or when their academic breaks are scheduled.

Hopefully, politicians will take some time this summer to reflect on how they can make positive changes to our education system. If they don’t, we can expect summer learning loss to remain a problem for years to come.

Subscribe to the Fraser Institute

Get the latest news from the Fraser Institute on the latest research studies, news and events.