There's nothing sacred about the traditional school calendar that starts after Labor Day and ends in June. If changing it would improve education, by all means, tinker away. But studies are mixed on whether most calendar changes benefit students.
What does work is adding instructional days. But extra time for learning isn't what the Los Angeles Unified School District has in mind with its proposal to move the start of school to mid-August. On the contrary, budget cuts have forced it to trim nearly two weeks of instructional time. So it's not that students will learn more; it's that they would learn more before certain hallmark tests. They could take their midterms before the winter break, when the information is fresher in their minds. They would have more time before the state's high school exit exam and the College Board's Advanced Placement tests.
The testing that wouldn't be affected is the biggie: the California Standards Tests that now are commonly given in May and are used to measure schools' progress. Many principals want more class time before the tests; they also complain that the month after the tests is an educational dead zone during which little is accomplished. But the state requires students to take the tests no later than 85% into the school year. An August start would simply shift everything earlier, not give students more time to absorb their lessons before the tests and eliminate the unproductive time afterward.
Many parents and teachers object to the proposed switch because it would disrupt vacation plans, conflict with camps and other summer programs, and require attendance during some of the year's hottest, smoggiest weeks, which might increase the district's utility expenses and mean more days when students could not exercise outdoors. In other states, earlier starts to the school year have resulted in losses to the tourism industry; in addition, the August start would cut into students' summer earning capacity, because most summer jobs run from late June to Labor Day.
Better education would outweigh all those concerns — if that's what an August start would really provide.
There's reason, however, to believe the effect on learning would be minimal, if there's any effect at all. It's true that if midterms were given before the winter break instead of after, teachers could dispense with some of the review they currently do, and that would give them a couple of days of instructional time. But it's hardly worth moving the calendar three weeks to gain two or three days. And although students would have fresher memories of the information they'd learned if they were tested before the holidays, they would still forget a lot of it during the break. In fact, some studies suggest that post-holiday review improves long-term retention. In other words, this move seems designed more to produce good test results than better-educated students.
We don't blame schools for fretting about tests. That's what state and federal policies require of them. If changing the school start date would actually allow schools to schedule more instructional time before the California Standards Tests, which in turn could raise their standing under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Los Angeles Unified would be justified in forging ahead with the policy. But it won't. And there's even less reason to plan the school year around the other two standardized tests that the district gives as reasons for an early start — the high school exit exam and AP tests. The exit exam is designed to test skills mastered a year or two earlier, and students have multiple chances to take it, beginning in their sophomore year. The time to worry about what they're learning is throughout their middle school and early high school years, not the August before the test. And AP tests are taken by too few students to justify changing everyone's school year.
At minimum, a major change is premature. Eighteen schools in L.A. Unified voluntarily started in August this year, constituting an informal pilot project. The district should spend a year or two assessing whether the benefits are real and significant before changing the calendar for more than 600,000 children and their families.