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The normative school calendar has been in use for over 100 years in Canada. Although some rural schools operate on alternative schedules, the common schedule has been largely unchanged for the past century. Some school districts in rural communities have implemented modified calendars, and report perceived benefits for their students and teachers. These advantages may also be applicable in an urban setting, with rewards to mental and physical health. As society and educational theory continuously evolve, so should the academic schedule to foster a healthy and effective school environment. When researching the background of the typical school calendar in Canada, it is essential to examine Ontario as an example, as it is one of the first regions to adopt the current schedule.
The origin of the current school calendar is generally believed to be a result of our society’s agrarian history. This is a common misconception, and the opposite is in fact true, as the current summer holiday began as a feature of urban educational policy. Initially set up as a year-round system, towards the end of the nineteenth century, Ontario gradually increased the length of their two-week summer break in August to what is practiced today.
There were several reasons for this extension, including financial strain, high rates of absenteeism in the summer, hot weather in a time before air conditioning, and a previous educational philosophy which stated that keeping children in school over the summer would decrease academic performance (Brown, 2008). Another facet of the school calendar being examined is the length of the school week. School districts that practice a shortened, four-day week are often in rural areas, but their model may be suitable for urban districts as well (Dam, 2006). This information leads us to question why the normative school calendar has not been changed in so long. Looking at cases like these gives us insight into the efficacy of alternative weekly schedules.
This is a topic of importance to me as I begin my path to becoming an educator. Learning about the evolution of educational theory and practice has led me to wonder why so little focus is given to alternate school schedules. The school calendar has become the backbone of children’s lives in our society, with families planning their years around it. Since the school schedule is integral to the experience of education, we should be constantly looking for ways to improve and innovate, as we do with all other aspects of education. Looking into the research has revealed both positive and negative impacts of alternative school calendars. By comparing these effects, one can determine whether the benefits of a modified schedule outweigh the potential challenges, along with the perceived pitfalls of the normative school calendar.
Before examining the benefits of alternative school calendars, it is important to examine the drawbacks of the current model. Cooper et al. (2003) synthesize the data from various studies of K-12 schools throughout the United States and Canada, and present arguments for and against alternative schedules.
A central argument of the year-round school calendar is that a long summer break leads to decreased overall academic performance. When students return from their two-month break, extraneous time needs to be spent reviewing concepts from the previous year’s lessons before introducing the new content (Cooper, Valentine, Charlton, & Melson, 2003). This buffer period is also when students acclimate into their new classes as well as get back in the rhythm of the weekly schedule. Another shortcoming of the current calendar is how it puts students of lower achievement in summer school, which puts an additional strain on the school system during a time when resources are scarce (Weiss & Brown, 2013).
These problems would be partially eliminated with the introduction of year-round school programs. When examining the potential benefits of alternate school week, particularly a four-day schedule, several impacts become apparent. Dam (2006) provides insight into the details and effects of four-day schooling in various rural districts in Colorado. Instead of setting a minimum number of days in the school year, Colorado has implemented a minimum instructional hours system. In place of the 180-day school year, elementary schools are required to meet 990 hours, and secondary schools 1080 hours. This system allows the districts to be more creative with their schedules, with many rural school systems opting for a four-day week with longer school days to provide the same amount of instructional time. Both students and teachers had positive opinions of the schedule, despite some teachers being apprehensive towards the change at first. Several financial advantages to the four-day week are identified including transportation and food costs, which are effectively reduced by up to 20% with one less school day, as well as utility and staff costs, which can be reduced slightly (Dam, 2006).
Other benefits of the four-day school week with regard to child care also became apparent in these districts. With the longer school days, children often get home around the same time as the parents do from work. This virtually solves the “latchkey kid” problem of children being home alone for some time each day. Additionally, it is much easier for parents to coordinate a sitter for one full day instead of for a couple of hours each day. The four-day week also provides an opportunity for parents to organize appointments such as the dentist on the off day, without the detriment of their child missing school (Dam, 2006). Beesley & Anderson (2007), have also identified the benefits of higher motivation after long weekends, more on-task behaviour in class, and lower absentee rates during four-day school weeks among both students and teachers. Teachers also reported having more time to prepare lessons and spend time with family. This information suggests that the modified schedule has effects on mental and physical health. My thoughts on this evidence are positive, as the logistical and educational benefits of an alternate school schedule appear significant. One feature of the year-round schedule I am skeptical of is the rate of teacher burnout. However, Cooper et al. 2003 report that having many short breaks in the school year instead of one long break prevents burnout, instead of contributing to it as one might assume.
No proposed school schedule will be perfect, including the normative one. Therefore, it is important to continually evolve and innovate in order to find the most effective school calendar. There are several drawbacks to alternative schedules identified by Dam (2006), and Cooper et al. (2003). These arguments are mostly regarding finance, instruction, and family time. Cooper et al. (2003) identify the opposition of parents to the modified calendar, as many see summer vacation as a long period for the family to spend time together. High school students who are skeptical of a year-round schedule cite the lack of opportunities for summer employment as a reason for their apprehension. Dam (2006) identified concerns over the instructional impact of missing a day of school in a four-day school week. When a child misses an entire day of school, there is a 20% increase in the instructional time missed.
This put additional strain on the child and teacher to bring the student up to speed. Beesley & Anderson (2007) cite a significant disadvantage of the condensed school week is student fatigue. Longer school days led 42% of both elementary and secondary students to report tiredness as a result of the day being too long. Since a central argument of modifying the school schedule is a potential for a rise in academic performance, there must be concrete evidence of a significant increase in achievement before other benefits are considered. Despite the various advantages of year-round schooling and four-day school weeks, none of the cited studies reported conclusive evidence of higher performance among students. While some data shows slightly better performance, much of it was confounded by other factors which discounts their credibility (Cooper et al. , 2003). In order to get a true measure of a change in academic achievement, Cooper et al. (2003) suggest that a proper longitudinal study is required.
As we can see from the cited sources, there are several benefits and challenges to modifying the school schedule. While the argument for changing the calendar to increase academic performance is unsubstantiated, the other proven benefits provide measurable improvements to quality of life for both students and teachers. When implementing an alternate school schedule all of the pros and cons need to be considered within the context of the specific district. While a modified calendar may have benefits is some areas, such as rural communities, those benefits may not translate to urban districts. Beesley & Anderson (2007) provide a clear and concise comparison of the benefits and challenges of the four-day school week which I believe can be used as a guide to reflecting on how this model may operate in a given district. Since there is so much variance in demographics, geography, culture, and pedagogy among school districts, it is unfair to suggest that either an alternate calendar or the traditional calendar is the most effective way to model the school schedule. Each district must take it upon themselves to research and decide what will be the best system for the students in their communities. I believe that the implementation of alternate schedule should be considered by more school districts throughout Canada.
The implementation of alternate schedules has been debated since the formation of the normative school calendar over 100 years ago. While rural communities have already experimented with these models, more urban districts are beginning to look into the potential advantages for their students and staff. School districts have a responsibility to students, staff and families to ensure they are creating the most effective learning environment. With the ever changing landscape of society and educational theory, districts should consider changes to the school calendar as it has effects on mental and physical health, which directly affect learning ability.
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