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Nadworny: Calendar 2.0

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If you ask Vermonters whether they think we need to change our education system, most people will respond with an overwhelming: Yes! Now that doesn’t mean that everyone who thinks we need to change our schools will agree on WHAT we should change. Some say we need more rigor, while others say we need more creativity. Some say kids need more homework, while others say kids need more time to play.

Recently the school superintendents in Chittenden County introduced a modest change to the school calendar that they named Calendar 2.0. What this does is to shift around the number of school days in the year, without adding or reducing any days. It makes summer vacation shorter by two weeks, by shaving a week from the beginning and end of the vacation break. It adds a few days to the already established vacations in winter and spring, while adding an extra week of vacation in the fall.

The superintendents’ reasons for this come from past data and future planning. Research shows that long summer breaks can have a negative effect on learning retention, especially for lower performing students. Higher performing students don’t see that effect as much, probably because their parents can afford to put them in stimulating camps and activities for the summer, as suggested in a recent New York Times article. So a shorter summer vacation should provide a more equitable foundation for kids who need it the most.

Another reason for the change is that it provides teachers with more significant time for training and personal development throughout the year. And it seems obvious to me that we can’t demand that an educational system change for the better without giving teachers the time and space to embrace, manage and experiment with new ideas. Since we want to see that kind of change in our schools, we better make sure teachers are ready for it.

Reaction to the calendar change has been fascinating. Some people are outraged. They claim that this will make it harder on parents, even though the number of school and vacation days hasn’t changed a whit. Other adults are accusing the schools of harming the “sanctity of vacation”, and they’ve created online groups like the Save Our Summer Coalition as if this were some kind of plot to remove the months of June, July and August from the pages of our almanacs.

It shows that change is hard, even incremental change. And, to be fair, the resisters come from all over the political spectrum, from very liberal to ultra conservative. But they are united in their desire not to change the school system calendar.

From my vantage point, though, changing the calendar is one of the lowest hanging fruits on the educational tree. And if we can’t make a relatively simple change like this, it’s hard to see how we’ll ever be able to make the more difficult choices required to make the foundational changes needed in our American and Vermont schools.