Williams: Year-Round Schooling is Good for Working Families, but Making it Work for Kids Will be More Complicated

Illustration by Meghan Gallagher / The 74

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For years, advocates have steamed at education policy’s low political salience. How could it be that the policies governing public schools — a massively important factor in children’s development and success, a cornerstone of American upward mobility — almost never rank high on voters’ minds? What could possibly matter more than how we run the institutions that shape our children’s present — and future? 

And yet, folks, be careful what you wish for. Converting “education” into a top-tier political issue doesn’t mean that voters will automatically, enthusiastically gravitate to the serious, productive education policy issues that wonky advocates would prefer. Voters in last fall’s “education” election didn’t embrace thoughtful, nuanced debates about how to fund schools more fairly or ensure that they are transparent about how children are performing academically. 

No, a handful of prominent campaigns used mostly imaginary allegations under the banner of critical race theory to inflame a very real culture war (and spark an ugly, embarrassing, inauthentic smokescreen of a conversation about American history and racial injustice). 

Can anyone thread the needle — impactful education policy idea that’s also politically potent? For instance, my colleague here at The 74, Jo Napolitano, reported recently about districts across the country reconsidering the traditional 180-day calendar. It’s one of those rare wonky education policy ideas that seems to be attracting some political attention. As part of his since-abandoned run for governor, former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio offered a proposal for year-round school with extended school days. All New York children would have been eligible — and the $5.4 billion in new staff and operational costs would be paid for via increased income taxes on those making more than a million dollars annually. 

“This is how we give every child a chance of success at life, give working parents peace of mind, and reduce inequality in New York State,” the former mayor said.

Start with economic inequality, where there’s no longer much room for debate. American democracy cannot long sustain with growing gaps between wealthy and poor — and stagnating economic mobility. Reasonable people can disagree about precisely how to curb inequality, but it’s not difficult to make a case for raising taxes on people making seven- or eight-digit annual incomes — particularly in New York, where the top 1 percent gather nearly one-third of the state’s total income (the highest share of any state). 

Year-round schooling also seems pretty well-aligned to the second goal: as far as supporting families goes, this is a slam dunk. As I’ve written in the past, U.S. school schedules work terribly for many families. School days rarely cover the standard 9 to 5 work window. So millions of families (including mine!) muddle through, scrambling together child care to fill the gaps, tacking on afterschool programming and/or summer camps — often at significant expense. For most of us, it’s an incoherent patchwork. If we align the school calendar to better match more families’ work schedules, we’ll save them time, energy and resources. 

The pandemic hammered this home: school schedules aren’t designed for working families. Before COVID, it was pretty rare to talk about mandatory, universal K-12 education in terms of what it means for the labor market or for working parents. When we argue about schools, we usually argue about how to make them work better for kids. But now, after many of us spent the better part of 22 months juggling full-time work and child care … the time is ripe for refitting schools to better meet families’ schedule needs. 

It’s the third goal — improving outcomes for kids — where the case for a year-long school calendar and longer school days is less clear cut. To start, the evidentiary case for more learning time is more complicated than you might think. Yes, more hours can help kids do better, but it’s not a simple addition problem. Indeed, research suggests that, for extended learning programs, “The weakest outcomes were generally found among programs whose duration was on the extreme ends of the spectrum — programs that were among those offering the fewest or greatest number of hours.” That is, while more time can help students succeed, after a certain point, there are diminishing returns to simply staying longer at school.

As usual, it’s not just a matter of quantity — the quality of extra learning hours also matters. And that, naturally, runs smack into the central education policy design problem for U.S. schools: they’re profoundly inequitable in terms of resources and quality, and those inequities fall along racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. As such, extending and expanding that system without intentionally addressing these injustices isn’t going to help kids who need it the most. That is, historically marginalized kids in under-resourced, segregated, and/or dysfunctional schools aren’t going to see dramatic, world-beating academic or developmental gains if they get extra time in those same settings. Predictably, meanwhile, most of their privileged peers will be spending their late afternoons and midsummers in high-quality learning environments, compounding their opportunities and advantages. 

It’s not super complicated to figure out how to keep kids safe and at school all year so that working families can stay on track. But figuring out how to expand and significantly change the school year in ways that actually serve kids’ best interests … that’s much harder. There are endless and complex questions to be settled in the planning and design. Would the additional time at school be spent continuing and accelerating what teachers and students were doing during the standard school day and year? Or would it be spent on new and different learning activities? Would enrichment be concentrated in the summer months or spread across the new schedule? Who will teach these programs — will credential requirements from the standard school calendar be a must, or will there be different expectations? To what degree would the answers to these sorts of questions fall under state control vs how much flexibility would local school districts get? How much of this will need to be worked out in collective bargaining — and how smooth will that process be? 

We need to think about the logistics here: schools are sticky, slow institutions. Leadership can’t simply flip a switch and make major changes to how they do things. Their processes and traditions have old roots snaking deep into their daily and yearly calendars. Teachers have lesson plans built around curricula that are designed for the current, standard, 180-day school year. It’s no simple thing to — BOOM — imagine year-round school into existence and make it effective and equitable for kids. 

In other words, expanding the school schedule is a serious, nuanced idea that requires lots of careful policy design and implementation. It’s the stuff of white papers and think tank panel discussions. Also, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t have the necessary political juice to spark a political movement. Parents — that is, potential education voters — activated about banning books in their children’s schools aren’t likely to switch their activism over to a technocratic discussion of how to make year-round school work for everyone. Indeed, year-round school was no balm for de Blasio’s gubernatorial ambitions: he abandoned his run not long into the new year.

Dr. Conor P. Williams is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank. Find him on Twitter @ConorPWilliams. The views expressed here are his alone. 

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