Not too long ago, many of us found ourselves setting alarms, purchasing supplies and reuniting with friends and classmates for that yearly tradition, back-to-school. But why now? Have you never wondered why we start school, end school and have vacations when we do, and what it would be like to do it differently?
The answer to the first of those questions is fairly straightforward. During the 1800s, when the United States was first standardizing education, the fall-to-spring schedule was adopted largely for the purpose of allowing the many children who lived on farms to be able to spend the summer helping their parents plant and harvest. In fact, many countries use a schedule based around the agricultural season, and just differ based on what hemisphere they are in.
However, the answer to the second question is a little more complex — still other countries use a schedule that is much different than the traditional American calendar, and there are those here who think that we should follow suit.
Some go April to March, some go September to July, and still others go from January to December, like the regular calendar. Plenty of countries that generally are credited with higher test scores, including China, Japan and Australia, all use longer school years than us, leading many Americans to advocate for longer years.
But in this state, plenty of people advocate for a shorter one, on the grounds that other states with higher scores use shorter ones. But what do those in charge think? And, just as importantly, what do we, the students, think?
I took an unscientific poll of about a dozen students from grades nine to 12. I asked them whether they liked the current calendar, what they would change about it, and whether they would prefer it to be longer, shorter or the same length. The responses were fairly predictable.
There were fairly even numbers between those who like and dislike the calendar, but when further questioned about changes they might make, nearly everyone said the same thing — less school, longer breaks, start later, end earlier, with a few intriguing comments, including pushing picture days to later in the year, and a different positioning of spring breaks.
In response to the length of the school year, there was another rough tie, between students who said that it should stay the same and students who wanted it to be shorter. No one answered that they would prefer a longer year. Of course, wanting less time at school is no new thing for a student — however, many might not have realized that, not long ago, they almost got their wish.
Earlier this year, a bill was proposed in the West Virginia House of Delegates that would not only change the starting and ending times of the school year, but actually shorten it by 10 days. According to an article from WDTV, the idea behind it was that several states use fewer school days than us, and their students still achieve better test scores. That reasoning notwithstanding, the bill died not long after its introduction. I couldn’t find much on why it died though; so I decided to contact some of the members of the Kanawha County Board of Education to find out what they thought about the Legislature’s proposal, the responses to the student poll, and the idea of changing the calendar in general.
I attempted to contact each member of the county’s school board individually, but only one responded; Ryan White, the board president. He started by explaining the basic process of choosing a calendar for the new school year — they always have several options, and hold two public hearings on the subject, each following a simple process. After both hearings, motions are made, until an agreement is reached on the calendar to be adopted.
On the subject of change, he said that he personally preferred the year-round calendar, currently used at Piedmont Elementary, and formerly used at Mary C. Snow Elementary, until this year (involving a shorter summer, with a three-week break in September, and more time off for winter and spring), and that he is “supportive of any effort of any other school to move to the year round calendar.”
Interestingly enough, the students agree with him on this — I asked each student I polled whether they had been to a school that used a year-round, or other non-traditional calendar before, and if so, whether they liked it better. Though very few had been to such schools, the majority of those who had claimed to like them better. So that raises the question — why did Mary C. Snow switch?
According to White, the answer was pretty simple — no middle or high schools in Kanawha County use the year-round calendar, and it created a lot of conflicts for families with kids of different ages. Per White, the switch has actually been one of the few notable calendar changes for quite some time, despite the fact that many people consider several of the aspects of the current school calendar to be “arbitrary.” This includes the 180 day requirement, and the agriculturally based traditional calendar itself — the issue with making any changes is similar to the problem that Mary C. Snow encountered — the traditional calendar, with its length, its fall start and its summer weeks off are, well, traditional. The vast majority of United States schools use it and people are just used to it.
So, kids don’t like the calendar — that is nothing new. But what might be to many is the fact that a lot of adults agree with them. Everyone seems to say they want change — but, when we’ve tried, it hasn’t worked. The House bill was dropped, Mary C. Snow switched back to the traditional schedule, and despite everything, our state, our country, even the world are completely wedded to the agrarian calendar. It’s another instance of something we see a lot — not being able to get away from traditions, no matter how much sense it makes. Maybe we can fix it — but we have to understand the problem, and just how deep it goes.