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Longer school year: Will extended school day add competitiveness?

Will a longer school year help American students be more competitive with their counterparts in Asia and Europe? Students in five states get ready for a shorter summer vacation in order to find out if an extended school day helps or hurts academic success. 

By Associated Press / January 14, 2013

A longer school year is on schedule for some schools in the US beginning this year. The pilot program will see if a longer school year helps or hurts students' academic success. Chicago extended its public school day by 75 minutes this year, a move supported by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, pictured. 2011.

Associated Press

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Did your kids moan that winter break was way too short as you got them ready for the first day back in school? They might get their wish of more holiday time off under proposals catching on around the country to lengthen the school year.

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But there's a catch: a much shorter summer vacation.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a chief proponent of the longer school year, says American students have fallen behind the world academically.

"Whether educators have more time to enrich instruction or students have more time to learn how to play an instrument and write computer code, adding meaningful in-school hours is a critical investment that better prepares children to be successful in the 21st century," he said in December when five states announced they would add at least 300 hours to the academic calendar in some schools beginning this year.

The three-year pilot project will affect about 20,000 students in 40 schools in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee.

Proponents argue that too much knowledge is lost while American kids wile away the summer months apart from their lessons. The National Summer Learning Association cites decades of research that shows students' test scores are higher in the same subjects at the beginning of the summer than at the end.

"The research is very clear about that," said Charles Ballinger, executive director emeritus of the National Association for Year-Round School in San Diego. "The only ones who don't lose are the upper 10 to 15 percent of the student body. Those tend to be gifted, college-bound, they're natural learners who will learn wherever they are."

Supporters also say a longer school year would give poor children more access to school-provided healthy meals.

Yet the movement has plenty of detractors — so many that Ballinger sometimes feels like the Grinch trying to steal Christmas.

"I had a parent at one meeting say, 'I want my child to lie on his back in the grass watching the clouds in the sky during the day and the moon and stars at night,'" Ballinger recalled. "I thought, 'Oh, my. Most kids do that for two, three, maybe four days, then say, 'What's next?''"

But opponents aren't simply dreamy romantics.

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