Most decisions about school calendars nationally are based on shortages of space and money, not the educational interests of children, according to new research presented at a conference in Nevada.
School administrators who've been forced into multitrack, year-round schools in Nevada say their anecdotal experience leads to the same conclusion.
"Both change and resistance to change in the school calendar has been dictated by local and national economic interests, not by the education benefit to children," said Harris Cooper, author of a recent study at the University of Missouri's Department of Psychology.
"I found very few parents, teachers or administrators whose attitude toward multi-tracking was better than neutral, beyond suggesting that it saved tax dollars," he said.
"The most positive remark I heard was provided by a mother who told me having her two children on different tracks allowed her to spend time one-one-one with each child and this improved the quality of their time together.
"In general, however, most districts that adopt multi-track calendars seem to do so grudgingly," Cooper said.
Paul Dugan, superintendent of elementary education for the Washoe County School District, said the district went through significant change six years ago when the defeat of a school bond issue forced five elementary schools to move to year-round schedules.
Most of those are on a rotation of 60 days in school followed by 20 days off, others use 45-15 schedules.
"I am very much a proponent of year-round school," Dugan said. "But to be real honest, the only reason we are doing multitrack year round is because of overcrowding. Nobody does that on purpose.
"It is a challenge. You are increasing the capacity of the school by a third. A school of 600-some, will get up to 800."
Most of the state's year-round schools, 73 of 178 or 41 percent, are found in Clark County, according to the Nevada Department of Education. About one-fifth, 14 of 66, of Washoe County's public elementary schools are year-round. Only three other districts have broken from traditional 9-month calendars - two schools in Churchill and one each in Carson and Lyon counties.
Cooper spoke last week at a conference on educational evaluation held in conjunction with a larger conference of the American Evaluation Association, an international professional group with 3,000 members, mostly educators and social scientists.
Melvin Mark, a psychology professor at Penn State University and editor of the American Journal of Evaluation, organized the side meeting with the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation.
"There are a lot more kids affected by modified school calendars than there are affected by charter schools or school vouchers," Mark said.
"But the research on school calendars doesn't often break in the media. Perhaps it is because the way those other things started was political in nature, while the school calendar changes kind of came from the ground up as local schools try to deal with shrinking budgets," he said.
"Given the amount of schools that are modifying calendars and the increasing number that are likely to face it as their tax bases fail to grow with enrollment, it seems to be a worthwhile thing for people to know the best answers our research can give them."
Cooper, who now directs an education program at Duke University, said the public school calendar dates to the 19th century when 85 percent of Americans were involved in farming and children were needed for planting and harvesting seasons.
Today, only about 3 percent of U.S. livelihoods are tied to the farming cycle, he said.
Some of the biggest complaints about multi-track center around the disruption of families with children in different schools as well as increased burnout of some school employees, Cooper said.
"The effect of modified calendars on achievement generally is positive but it is small compared to many other educational interventions and may be negligible in some instances," he said.
In Washoe County, Dugan said there's little evidence to show multi-track affect student achievement except for gains made by children who are learning to speak English in school while living in households that don't speak English.
Some teachers didn't like the scheduling at first, but most are adapting, he said.
"The burnout seems to be occurring at the secretarial and administrative positions where there is no down time and they are working 12 months now. If you are a principal or a vice principal, you never really feel comfortable being gone when you know you have students in session.
"I don't think anyone, including us at the district level, is saying this is great we are going multitrack year around. What we are saying is this is the way we are dealing with overcrowding at this time.