Andre Perry Commentary
4:50 pm
Fri January 18, 2013

What Are You Learning During Mardi Gras?

Dr. Andre Perry

Mardi Gras season is upon us, which means there are more days that our children are not in school. Between Mardi Gras, Christmas, summer, fall and spring breaks, in-services and professional development days as well as inevitable storms, when are kids in school? Hard rain on the first day of school — cancel it. Have a winning football season — we’ll take off for that too. Absences due to New Orleans’ traditions combined with the archaic custom of an agrarian school calendar are self-imposed barriers to educational progress.

For students who are multiple grade levels behind, there’s no way to get around the need for more instructional days. Students who are behind must accelerate their rate of learning and receive more lessons. In addition, working parents need their children to have consistency and greater frequency, especially at the primary grades. The frustration in scrambling to find and pay for less enriching daycare is compounded with the notion that their children are reducing their college and career options.

Unfortunately, the same economic demands that force parents to work longer hours also prohibit schools from extending the day or year. School costs are escalating but their budgets are not. Increasing the number of days in a year without subsidy can easily make a high performing school into a mediocre one.

However, findings are inconclusive as to whether or not a longer school year or day has significant impacts on achievement. To keep a child in a low performing school for an additional two months is like saying a bad babysitter is better than no babysitter at all. 

However, we have accumulated significant data that proves students lose what they’ve learned in the school year during unstructured summer breaks. Two highly cited studies from RAND and Johns Hopkins reveals that students can lose up to a month worth of learning during a summer. Lost learning accumulates year after year to the point that we can say that the educational calendar structured a year’s worth of learning loss over the course of a student’s tenure in school.

President Obama called for longer schools days and an extension of the calendar. There have been local and national attempts to move towards a year-round concept, but states and districts have not extended the proper allocations to meet varied costs. In particular, districts would have to enable schools to hire more teachers and devise a morning and evening shift. But again, we shouldn’t place quantity over quality.

Districts must incentivize schools that have proven to accelerate learning. Reform has sought to close failing schools and prop up new ones in their place. However, states should also think about increasing school time in successful schools whenever a school closes. In addition, a move to a year round calendar would require capitulation from other schools. Families with children in multiple schools need them to generally be on the same calendar. 

I love the holidays as much as anyone, but if kids were catching books instead of beads, I wouldn’t have a problem with taking days off. And, if we want to become the smartest city in world, we have to prioritize going to school as the most respected tradition.

Andre Perry, Ph.D. (twitter: @andreperrynola) is Associate Director for Educational Initiatives for Loyola University New Orleans and author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City.

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