Long summer break kills learning

Although the 180-day school year is common in the United States, it is shorter than in most other advanced countries. The school year is 200 days or more in many countries, including Australia, Germany, Israel, Japan, South Korea, and the Netherlands.

This month, about 100,000 young Michiganders will graduate from high school. That’s good news. The not-so-good news is that, even though they will have a diploma, many of them will not have a 12th-grade education.

One of the most telling pieces of evidence is the large number of college students who have to take remedial courses. Here at Michigan State University last year, more than 1000 students were required to take “Mathematics 1825: Intermediate Algebra.” But credits earned in Math 1825 don’t count toward graduation. You only get college credit for taking college courses, and Math 1825 is not a college course. It’s a course in which students work on material they should have mastered in high school.

The problems are just as bad, or worse, at most other colleges and universities in Michigan, and especially at community colleges. And that doesn’t say anything about the skills of the high-school graduates who never go to college.

Don’t get me wrong—many of our students do graduate from high school with all of the skills that a high-school diploma should signify. But many don’t.

We can do better.

Students need more time

In my 31 years on the MSU faculty, I have taught many students who were exceptionally well prepared, but I have also taught many with unfortunate gaps in their preparation. In most cases, my sense is that these students simply had not been required to spend enough time on their studies in the K-12 schools. They hadn’t written enough paragraphs, and they hadn’t done enough math problems.

I believe it’s time for our students to spend more time on task. It’s time for a longer school year.

We like to think that Michigan has a school year of 180 days. But Bridge Magazine has exposed the fact that, in practice, many schools in Michigan deliver far fewer than 180 days of instruction. As a first step, I would love it if we would have a school year that is truly 180 days long.

But 180 is not a magic number. Although the 180-day school year is common in the United States, it is shorter than in most other advanced countries. The school year is 200 days or more in many countries, including Australia, Germany, Israel, Japan, South Korea, and the Netherlands. (It’s no coincidence that students in these countries routinely outperform American students.)

Students forget a lot over the long, long summer. And so our children spend weeks every fall re-learning the things that were lost over the summer. The losses are greatest for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, whose parents can’t afford to fill the summer with enriching activities.

If we in Michigan are serious about providing our children with a solid foundation for economic success, I believe we should have a school year of 200 days.

Of course, a longer school year is not some miraculous solution to our educational problems. A longer school year doesn’t help students who are chronically truant. A longer school year is no substitute for good teachers, appropriate class sizes, or modern facilities. Most of all, a longer school year is no substitute for parental involvement. But the combination of more instruction and less forgetting over the summer will help most of Michigan’s children.

Some folks may object to this proposal because it will cost money. They will say we can’t afford to lengthen the school year. I say we can’t afford not to.

Michigan was once a leader in this regard. In 1872, the school year in Michigan was 150 days, at a time when the national average was 133 days, and Louisiana had a 65-day school year. By 1920, Michigan’s school year was 172 days, at a time when the national average was 162, and South Carolina had 110.

We have the opportunity to be a leader again. In fact, we are already moving in the right direction. Michigan made a huge improvement last year, by expanding the opportunities for early-childhood education. Now is the time to build on that momentum, by increasing the length of the K-12 school year.

Charles Ballard is a professor of economics at Michigan State University

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Thu, 06/19/2014 - 7:26am
Its makes sense but I don't see it happening anytime soon. The tourism business put pressure on the legislature to require school start after Labor day, they aren't going to be happy about a shorter summer vacation either.
What's best for...
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 8:42am
I believe that blended school calendars and year-round learning are an essential tool to help our children become better prepared for life in the global economy of the 21st century. Children who attend school year round have a far greater academic retention rate than those who are "out and idle" for 12 weeks during the summer. It's not like the vast majority of our children have to work the farm as was common 100+ years ago! Many people are unsure what year round learning is all about, so we need more education about the values of it. Students still get breaks, they're just divided up over 12 months. School administrators also have the ability to petition the Dept. of Education to start school before Labor Day and many districts have been doing that over the past few years. As an FYI, most of these schools still allow students off during the week before Labor Day so their families can enjoy that last days of summer, they just start school in early August and end in late June. As a working parent, I wish year round schooling was around for my older children!
Michael DeYoung
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 9:11am
The point that is continuing to be pushed aside as unimportant centers around the purpose of K-12. Since 2000 in this country we have politically decided education is a competition with other nations. Fact, education is a learning and socialization system. It is designed to give a basic understanding of the world (English, math, science) and to provide social skills (social studies, arts, playground/sports. Real education is and always had been college studies and/or trade schools. We are not losing in this nation at 180 days. We will be losing at 200 or 220 or 250. The Greatest part of our system is the K-12 summer! True dreaming and imagination that have provided Americans with inspiration and creativity come mainly in the summer when kids are allowed to grow as people on their own. They learn about life, about friends, about being silly all day and then going for a swim. Professor you might understand college students, but you know little about children. More school creates less learning, if you do not understand that point go to an school and watch the change in children from March through May. Let our kids enjoy life, as Professor DO YOUR JOB AND CREATE PROFESSIONALS.
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 9:23am
colleges and universities didn't complain about remedial course work in the 1970's when it was evident that the level of college readiness had declined. pell grant money paid for the remedial courses which at some schools could be identified by course numbers like 0100, or 0 whatever. then the course numbers went like 1020 or the like. numbers were changed to give the appearance of a ' real college course'. the unsuspecting student did not, and probably does not, know that course numbers indicate the expected level of study. so, when the pell grant money runs out, the student usually drops out. the number of school days was increased in the 1990's by adding time to the day. now, the time spent in school is expressed in hours of instruction. the length of the school year is non-negotiable. when some districts began starting in August, the state said it interfered with the tourism industry and made it law, that no public school could start before labor day. since controlling the school year is not and option, why don't the institutions of higher learning take a definitive stand and stop accepting pell grant money for remedial courses. that won't happen. ijs
Charles Richards
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 12:47pm
I wholly agree with Professor Ballard's excellent column. I particularly like his statement that " The losses are greatest for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, whose parents can’t afford to fill the summer with enriching activities." Not only can such parents not afford to " to fill the summer with enriching activities." but their homes are often chaotic and stressful. There is considerable evidence that excess stress adversely affects development of areas of the brain involved with learning and self-control. Just substituting time in a stable learning environment for time spent in such homes or on the streets would be beneficial. We are not all thoroughbreds who absorb information quickly and smoothly. Some of us need more time on task, with more repetition. Professor Ballard's proposal would do much to reduce disparities in educational outcomes. That is particularly important in a time of growing inequality. David Autor, of MIT, said " The growth of skill differentials among the other 99 percent is arguably even more consequential than the rise of the 1 percent for the welfare of most citizens."
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 11:30pm
Charles, You said, 'many of them (K-12 graduates) will not have a 12th-grade education.' I agree. I asked our local school board to tell me what grade level our students had actually attained. They refused. I quoted a statement from 1994 by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP) which said that in the subject of math, American students drop out at the rate of 50 percent per year. By the time students graduate, only 5 percent are at grade level. The discussion at a board meeting took issue with their use of 'drop out.' I said I thought the NEAP people meant that they had mentally dropped out of the subject, rather than physically left school entirely. I put this information, my estimate of the actual grade level attained vs grade level, on a graph for Math. I asked them to provide the data from our school for math grade level attained on my chart and publish it to the community. They refused. After a little research I estimated that the actual grade level attained in Reading, Science and Writing was similar to Math. I asked them to provide graphs of all four subjects, and a Combined Graph showing the actual grade-level attained upon graduation. They refused. I think Proficiency Test results, and ACT, and MEAP results, and NAEP results, rather hide the true situation. It may be this is intentional. The community does not know what you know. Bridge, I believe, published a database that one could access to find the percent of graduates that go on to college from each local school. It also provided information for the number of those students that did take remedial courses at college. For my local school about 50 percent of students going to college required remediation courses before starting their actual college courses. About 54 percent began 'college' work. I assume this includes those that actually started remedial courses at the college campus. I found another article on the web that said how many of these remedial students fail before starting their first actual college level course. As I recall, that was about 50 percent. 50% of those that were said to be starting college, actually did not make it to their first day in class, a college level class. I called my local community college placement officer to make sure I had this straight. So as an example, to illustrate my confusion, I said when I went to Michigan State long ago I had been Salutatorian in high school and began a tough curriculum to become a Mechanical Engineer. He said, Oh that would be different. That would be about 80% remediation for those students that begin a tough academic curriculum. So I began to wonder, what grade-level students community colleges are accepting? They accept students for Dual Enrollment at 10th grade. Now these are the top level students of course, but they are only tenth-graders. So then I thought, if 'college intended' students could enter college with tenth-grade level courses, what 'level' of student is actually being graduated? I estimate the 'average' high school graduate in Michigan has only actually attained a level of 'eighth-grade.' I do not agree that 200 days would solve this problem. That is not the problem.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Fri, 06/20/2014 - 7:46am
This comment was intended for Charles Ballard.
Jeff Salisbury
Fri, 06/20/2014 - 7:54pm
If universities don't want unprepared, unqualified students, the answer is easy: Stop admitting them. But colleges can't do that; they crave the easy cash from non-credit remedial classes. This is a terrible disservice, especially to the half of the population who have an IQ below average and would be better served by their community college, not a university. Also: It's not the high school's mission to be a job-creation program for college professors. Let the persistent glut of gypsy scholars find other permanent work and ease the over-supply of the over-educated. The democratization of college since WWII's GI Bill has been mostly a good thing. But universities must return to a sensible operational model, financially and academically: advanced education for the smaller segment who prove the aptitude.
Jeff Salisbury
Fri, 06/20/2014 - 10:57am
So, 20 more days would presumably enhance the nation's attributes thereby nurturing its citizens most desirable qualities... active citizenship, moral values, personal conduct and quality of life. And all of that, accomplished in only 4 more weeks. Incredible. Why didn't someone thing of this before? What a bunch of slackers we are.
Fri, 06/20/2014 - 11:03am
I wonder if the fine professor would be willing to do what public school educators do every day: Teach between four to six classes a day for a total of 180 students per day, up to two even three different classes altogether per day. English 9 one hour, British Literature the next hour, and so forth. I wonder if the fine professor would give up his tenured position and trade it for a year in the life of a teacher in a high risk public school in Michigan, be it rural or urban. Would the professor be willing to tutor those students, before they get to college, or does he simply wish to point the finger? Would the professor be willing to go forth and leave his position at MSU and lead the way for others by opening a school that is open year round? Would the professor be willing to drink from the same cup he is proposing for everyone else?
Fri, 06/20/2014 - 1:06pm
This article was brought to you buy the Sylvan Learning Center.
Jim Potchen
Fri, 06/20/2014 - 4:36pm
I strongly support Prof. Ballard's position! Not only should we lengthen the school year but we should make the time spent more effective and efficient by making it more fun. Indeed the pleasure derived from the excitement of learning is insufficiently emphasized in my opinion. The enjoyment of learning and the improved use of time can be taught! Enthusiastic mentors who can teach and practice continuously quality improvement ("Kaizen") could do a lot to address the problem. Anyone can be a mentor. Education is too important to leave to the traditional teachers in schools. We all have a responsibility to improve society by increasing Human Capital. I define human capital as the value people have to themselves and to society. We all should be concerned about what happens to children in and out of school.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Sat, 06/21/2014 - 3:31pm
Jim Potchen June 20, 2014 at 4:36 pm I like each of the things you said except for two. I like your definition for 'Human Capital', but I do not like that you are assigning this positive value to the term the 'human capital'. Aren't you actually saying 'self worth' or 'individual worth?' To me capital has more to do with money and interest on money, or those things purchased and owned by someone like the machines in company or its physical assets. As in who owns the 'means of production.' If 'human capital' is owned by someone another person, aren't we really implying 'slavery?' I don't like the connotation, and I suspect that some poor souls actually do view economics from this viewpoint of ownership of these 'human capital' people. I know this is probably just the way 'politically correct' people use these terms, but I feel that if we are talking about 'slavery' we should just use that term instead of a euphemism. One young man used the term 'capitalism' and I was astonished. I asked him, what did he understand 'capitalism' to be? He described it in terms of self worth, hard work, commitment, honesty, industriousness, and so on. He never mentioned 'money' or 'interest' or 'ownership.' Maybe I do not understand how this is all used these days. The other point was about not liking the 200 days, which I discussed in my comment to Charles.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 06/22/2014 - 1:37pm
First of all, year round school or just increasing the number of school days would cost money and thus will not happen. Too many families and business interests are against it too. From what I've read the data show conflicting conclusions as to the improvement over time in student learning except for poor and minority students. More should be done to improve the education system we have now especially for the poor and minority students who are most affected by summer. My suggestion would be for more summer programs that emphasize hands on or project based learning/internships and could lead into career choices.