Should We Change The School Year

    The recent controversy over the “New Math” approach taken by Alberta Education has brought another more interesting debate to the forefront.  When one looks at the countries considered having the best education systems in terms of test results, they have one thing in common over Canada and Alberta. They ALL have a longer school year.
    China, Japan, and South Korea have school years that range from 220 to 260 days a year. Most of their students are required to attend Saturday classes. Even Finland, who is a member of the top five, has a 190-day school year. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Outliers he mentions the need for 10,000 hours to arrive at a masterly level of any endeavor. Inventors like Edison and Bell or athletes like Gretzky or Steve Nash would tell you of the many hours they spent in developing the knowledge and skills to be successful. 
    As a basketball coach I knew it took about 20 games for my players to develop both the skills and the teamwork needed to be successful and three years for them to become a strong team. The player that was able to attend summer camps or play on spring teams developed faster than the individuals who were not able to take advantage of those opportunities.
    The same is true when learning an academic skill. Students that spend 260 days a year are naturally going to develop faster than an individual who spend 185 days on that same body of knowledge. Over recent years there have been several attempts to alter the school day. Some school systems have added hours while reducing days, while others have expanded to year round school year while staying in the 185 day concept. 
    Alberta in fact has a 200 school day year for teachers, but by the time you subtract teacher convention, parent/teacher meeting, staff meeting and professional development days the actual student contact days is 185 days. If you consider field trip days then the actual classroom days are further reduced to closer to 180 days in actual instruction by the students’ teachers. 
    So how did we come to the decision that the September to June model of 185 days was ideal? Many think that it is tied to the agricultural cycle, but when was the last time you saw farmers planting in July and harvesting in August? Some think it was so families could plan their holidays together. The truth is that with families requiring two incomes the chances of both parents getting the same time off is reduced and because everyone is planning their holiday during the same time frame the demand on tourist services increases dramatically along with the cost of said services.
    In Leduc the first schools operated from May to October. The reason was simple that was when the weather permitted travel. In fact Leduc’s first teacher, Mr. Douglas, had to resign because he could not make it to the school from his home as his canes kept getting stuck in the mud one wet spring! Most schools did follow an agrarian cycle with school starting in December to March with a break and then from mid-May to August. This provided time for the children to help with the planting and harvesting of crops.
    As more and more farmers began to adopt mechanical means to plant and harvest the need for the younger children to help was reduced and the school year began to change. 
    Two independent factors contributed to the current school year. Neither came about regarding what was the best for students to learn, but to satisfy concerns of parents. The first was the adding of the September to November months to the school year. There was a lot of pressure on parents with large families having their children home during the late fall and early winter. This was not only true on the farms but also in cities where new immigrant families had both parents working in factories. At the same time wealthy ladies of the late 1890’s wanted to take their children to their summer homes.
    As roads improved and the schools were upgraded it became more practicable to adopt the school year to the needs of families. Soon the September to June school year became acceptable as the most practical in meeting those needs. 

This system was successful in producing very educated and successful citizens. While the rest of world seemed satisfied in educating only the elite Canada’s education system ranked among the best in the world. Some time after World War II other countries began to realize the importance of educating all of their citizens and began to adopt Canada’s philosophy towards education. However they were not stuck in Canada’s traditional school year and looked at education as a year round function.
    Just ask teachers and administrators in our schools about what they have to do in September before they can start on that year’s school curriculum. Today most European, Asian, and South American countries have more school days and longer school days than Canada. This does not mean that their students will learn more just that they will forget less. 
    Today Canada’s students no longer just compete with students from the rest of Alberta or Canada. They now compete with students from all over the world. Fortunately Canada still ranks among the top ten in the world and our students can be found doing very interesting jobs all over the world. Ten or twenty years ago a student from rural Alberta would migrate to either Edmonton or Calgary for a job opportunity today that same student could find work in any of todays major cities, like New York, London, or Tokyo and they do!
    Do we need to change the school year to remain competitive with the rest of the world? That is what we will discuss in next weeks issue of the Pipestone-Flyer

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