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March 24, 2016

After a week of grading midterms, I enjoyed the luxury of a week-long spring break, spending some time in Phoenix with my family.  While my university was on break, my kids were not, unfortunately.  My Midwestern niece and nephew were on break though, as were all the kids in Phoenix, which got me thinking about school calendars.  We’ve been having a lot of discussion about this down here in Dartmouth, and apparently, I’m not the only one with school calendars on the brain, as the new superintendent of the Boston schools Tommy Chang put forth some of his own ideas about making changes to the schedule of the state’s largest school system.

Maybe it’s the fact that Dr. Chang and I both come from elsewhere that we’re both pondering the New England school calendar.  February breaks are relatively uncommon outside of the New England region, with states in the Midwest and the South typically having one break in March like many universities.  But the New England school calendar appears to be becoming less distinct.  February break is going the way of the dodo in Connecticut, and at least 10 districts in Rhode Island have chosen to axe February break too.  Should districts in Massachusetts make this transition?  Dr. Chang thinks so.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of February break, Dr. Chang’s proposal raises the interesting question of what the optimal school calendar is.  Should we start earlier in the year?  Traditionally, school started after Labor Day.  I know we’ve abandoned that here in Dartmouth, although we only start a few days before Labor Day.  Schools in other states start much earlier in August than schools in Massachusetts, which means a good deal more learning time prior to taking standardized tests.  For instance, in the town we stayed in (Peoria, AZ), schools started on August 10th this year.  They started on August 3rd in some Phoenix schools this year.  And what about summer break and the associated summer learning lossAn economic necessity to avoid the high costs of cooling schools? An outdated tradition that exacerbates inequality?  A time for students to de-stress?

Of course, what’s best for the children should be paramount in these decisions, but the needs of families, teachers, and taxpayers have to be taken into account as well.  What this all means, as we’re finding out here in Dartmouth, is that conversations about changing the school calendar can be difficult and intense, with no clear right answer.   I’ll be watching to see what happens to Dr. Chang’s proposal—will this be the start of broader changes to school calendars in Massachusetts, an isolated change that’s limited to Boston, or a non-starter altogether.

boston public schools, school calendar

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