The general consensus from research to date is that the outcomes of year-round education are at least as positive as or better than those achieved by schools following a traditional calendar and that the benefits may be particularly strong for disadvantaged students.
Three advantages are often given for year-round schools: increased student achievement; greater satisfaction among parents, teachers and students; and cost savings.
However, Bradley J. McMillen, North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, states that most existing research suffers from important methodological flaws and therefore does not adequately address why achievement may be slightly higher in year-round schools.
McMillen sought to better examine achievement differences between year-round and traditional-calendar schools, using two years of data from over 345,000 North Carolina public school students in grades 3-8.
Results indicate that achievement in year-round schools was no higher than traditional-calendar schools and that differential effects for certain student groups, although statistically significant in some cases, were too small to be educationally meaningful.
Shorter vacation breaks in the school year
A year-round calendar reorganizes the long vacation of the traditional calendar into a series of smaller breaks distributed throughout the year. In past studies, the year-round category has often included extended-year schools, in which students attend school more than 180 days a year.
International comparisons of math and science achievement reveal that countries whose students spend more days in school demonstrate higher achievement in these subjects.
The quantity of instructional time is critical to student outcomes. In McMillen’s study, only 180-day programs were included.
The number of year-round schools has increased greatly in the past decade in North Carolina. Two basic year-round models exist — school-wide and school-within-a-school, in which some of the students attend on a year-round basis.
Most students in year-round schools in North Carolina spend 45 days in school and then have a 15-day break. Approximately 13 percent of year-round schools stagger student attendance, with at least one group always out of school.
This model is often introduced to ease crowding and postpone the building of additional schools. Re-evaluation of previous research indicates that year-round schools in which all students attend at the same time cost as much or more than traditional school programs.
Savings come only from multi-track programs in which more students can be educated in the same building because they attend on a staggered schedule, with at least one group always on break at any given time. McMillen contends that many previous studies fail to take student differences into account, fail to report any test of statistical significance or any measure of effect size, and fail to differentiate year-round schools from extended-year schools.
The goal of McMillen’s investigation was to provide a more statistically appropriate examination of achievement in 180-day year-round schools and compare it to traditional- calendar schools.
North Carolina’s experience
During the 1997-8 school year, 106 public schools in North Carolina operated on a year-round calendar in Grades 3-8. These schools tended to be concentrated in the lower grades. Data from the North Carolina Testing Program, which tests students across the state in math and reading at the end of every year, was used to compare student achievement. These tests are aligned closely with the North Carolina official state curriculum.
In addition to these test scores, the study included each student’s gender, ethnicity, and parents’ highest level of education. Any student who was retained or for whom there was not test data for both years was excluded from the study.
McMillen compared four groups of students: those in traditional-calendar schools, those in year-round schools, those attending on a traditional calendar in a school that offered a year-round calendar for those who chose it, and those who chose the year-round calendar within a traditional-calendar school.
There were some differences between these groups. In the school-wide model, white students were more likely to attend traditional-calendar schools, but in schools with a year-round option, they were more likely than minority students to choose the year-round calendar. There were no significant gender differences between the four groups of students. In all the year-round classrooms, students reported slightly higher levels of parental education.
Impact on achievement
McMillen strove to include both school-level and student-level factors that might influence outcomes to determine whether a year-round calendar demonstrated any relationship to achievement after controlling for other factors. The majority of variation in achievement in both reading and math was found within schools, not between schools. Prior achievement had the strongest relationship to outcomes in both reading and math.
Higher levels of parental education were also associated with higher achievement, and the size of this effect increased with the students’ years in school. White students outperformed minority students and female students outperformed males in reading across all types of schools.
Because previous research indicated that the more disadvantaged students might benefit from year-round education, McMillen examined the performance of lower-achieving students in the four types of schools.
Results showed that lower-achieving students made slightly greater gains in year-round schools compared to those attending traditional-calendar schools. This gain was larger in reading than math, but in both cases the differences were not large (approximately .05 standard deviation). This benefit was higher for white than minority students.
No significant difference
After controlling for prior achievement, gender, ethnicity, and parent education level, initial analyses indicated no statistically significant differences in either reading or math achievement between students attending year-round calendar schools and those attending a traditional-calendar school.
Small, mixed results indicated slight benefits for different groups from the traditional or year-round schedule, but they were not found for all subjects and program types. The results of this study are somewhat consistent with previous research indicating the achievement of students in year-round schools is equal to that of students in traditional schools and that year-round schools may benefit lower-achieving students somewhat.
In North Carolina, almost all year-round programs offer some form of remediation and/or enrichment during intersessions, and 57 percent of the programs have mandatory intersession remediation for students who are behind academically. This fact may be at least partially responsible for the slight benefits seen in some cases for lower-achieving students in year-round schools.
McMillen recommends that further studies should take into account the length of time a school has been operating year-round and measure the possible differences in instructional techniques between traditional and year-round schools.
McMillen points out that one factor that may confound these results is that 60 percent of year-round schools in North Carolina are magnet schools of choice.
McMillen suggests that because any achievement benefits from the year-round schedule are probably too small to be educationally significant, the consideration of other factors such as cost savings or parent and student preferences may provide a more reasonable basis for decisions about whether to keep or adopt year-round calendars.
“A Statewide Evaluation of Academic Achievement in Year-Round Schools” The Journal of Educational Research Volume 95, Number 2, December 2001 Pp. 67-74.
Published in ERN March 2002 Volume 15 Number 3