A Balanced Calendar Can Ensure Students Don’t Slip

You might be surprised to learn that Michigan has a law against starting school before Labor Day – if you are in one of the nearly 200 schools and school districts that have received permission to start school early. The national trend toward moving back-to-school days into August has come to Michigan in a big way, and there have been legislative efforts to repeal the state’s school scheduling law.

School officials should take the next step and consider balanced calendar approaches to the school year.

“Balanced calendar,” or “year-round schooling” shortens the summer break, extends the academic year, and substitutes long holiday stoppages for more and shorter breaks throughout the year. Break periods are supplemented with “intersessions,” which a Michigan Department of Education F.A.Q. describes as extra learning availabilities “during which students can report to the school building for social and academic enrichment, interventions, and/or academic recovery.”

The year-round schedule breaks the year into five learning periods of 15 to 45 days, alternating those with five breaks ranging from 15 to 30 days. The schedule has been adopted by about four percent of U.S. schools holding three million students, according to the National Association for Year-Round Education. In Michigan, the Holt Public Schools district has had two elementary schools on a balanced calendar since the 1990s.

A balanced calendar does not necessarily mean more school days. The idea is to eliminate long breaks during which kids tend to forget what little they have learned in school. Students can lose up to 25 or 30 percent of their school-year learning over the course of a summer vacation, according to a 2016 study published by Teachers College Press.

Shorter breaks minimize learning loss, proponents of the balanced calendar say, but there may be additional benefits. By putting interactions between teachers and students on a more regular basis, the year-round schedule helps schools understand and respond to students’ needs.

It may also reduce stress on students, who get more regular breaks, and on teachers, who don’t have to make up months-long lesson plans. The balanced calendar schedule could also provide benefits for lower income, special education, and other at-risk students, making school resources available during traditional summer vacations.

Finally, proponents report improvements in behavior and discipline, as students do not get accustomed to long periods of freedom during the summer, thus staying more focused and attentive when they are at school.

Michigan schools have been accelerating the push toward year-round learning. Some 150 local education agencies, public school academies, and independent school districts received Labor Day waivers (allowing school to start earlier in the summer) during the three-year period from 2019 to 2021. That number rose to 164 in 2020-2022, and it will be 182 for 2023-2025. That’s nearly a fourth of the state’s 838 school districts.

The waivers are necessary due to Act 451 of 1976 in Michigan’s school code, which was written to “ensure that the district’s or public school academy’s schools are not in session on the Friday before Labor day.” The putative reason for that law is that it promotes tourism and helps families plan summer trips by ensuring the vacation will last through the holiday.

However, the Labor Day restriction is coming under increasing pressure. Rep. Pamela Hornberger, a Chesterfield Township Republican, introduced legislation in 2021 to rewrite the revised school code, giving local districts more flexibility in how they plan and schedule their school years.

As more schools in Michigan and other states begin moving the start of school into mid- and even early August, a balanced calendar schedule can help ensure that administrators are doing more than just adding days to the school year. Their goal should be to make the school schedule smarter and more efficient, with an approach that stretches out the learning process and may carry important benefits for discipline, responsiveness, and academic achievement.

By guest author Tim Cavanaugh, senior editor of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.