Barbara Donnelly Lane: Balanced calendar will help prevent 'brain drain'
by Barbara Donnelly Lane
Guest Columnist
November 22, 2009 01:00 AM | 1378 views | 4 4 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Long and lazy summers are a part of a modern American childhood. The length of this vacation was originally determined by an agrarian-based economy that required children to become extra farmhands during harvest. Now, summer days are spent frying at pools, visiting friends or watching fireworks. The burden of academics is easily forgotten, and the spirit is rejuvenated.

However, according to researchers at institutions like John Hopkins University, the average child forgets more than his troubles while spending multiple months fishing with a stick pole on a backwoods pond.

You see, while an idyllic image for a Norman Rockwell painting, that same child soaking up the sunlight is leaking knowledge like a sieve will leak water. He suffers from a strange phenomenon called brain drain, and it's hard to dispute its existence.

Imagine for a moment that education is a kind of liquid fuel a teacher can pour into a child's head throughout a school year. On average, by the start of the fall term, research suggests at least 25 percent of all that liquid will have drained into nothingness, evaporated in a summer haze.

Furthermore, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the procedural skills needed for math are forgotten quickest. This is because procedural skills require constant practice and reinforcement, which few parents have the time or ability to oversee in June. This is not good news for students who must later compete for jobs with kids from other countries who have benefited from longer school weeks and shorter vacations, who have gained a greater mastery of math.

Now, to be fair to summer leisure proponents, if we return to the wholesome image of a carefree child fishing through his vacation like some Cobb County version of Huckleberry Finn, we have to concede he might be doing more than just waiting for a bite. He might be reading a good book. After all, research also shows some students make measurable gains over summer vacation in reading achievement.

However, this same research demonstrates students from disadvantaged households rarely make these gains because those kids don't have the same access as their more privileged peers to books outside school.

So why are Cobb County parents up in arms about a balanced calendar?

I understand the argument about how the school board should have conducted a longer and more open debate. I understand why teenagers who want to work might be mad. I do not understand the general cacophony that seems to express summer is somehow sacrosanct.

I mean, let's be honest. Forget farming. How many kids actually go fishing in backwoods ponds when they own an XBox? How many parents who find it hard to afford childcare in the fall don't find it hard to afford childcare in the summer? Why does everyone assume no one will create viable private solutions for childcare when weeklong breaks are built into the calendar? Isn't it easier to find help for a five-day vacation rather than an entire summer?

Furthermore, shortening the summer is actually egalitarian because students who can't afford summer enrichment programs won't drop quite as far behind their wealthier peers. If motivated, these lower income kids can take advantage of state-funded extracurricular activities like band or Science Club even if they can't pay for summer cello lessons or Science Camp.

Now I must admit a prejudice on my part. For almost three years, my son was enrolled in a school in England that runs on a calendar very similar to that which the Cobb County Board has just instituted. Rejuvenating breaks were more frequent but never so long that "brain drain" had time to punch holes in a student's retention rate.

While anecdotal, I can only report positive experiences with this system, which we left at the end of 2008. In fact, I would hazard saying I think once people here give a balanced calendar an actual chance, they'll also think it's a brilliant solution to the summer slide. At least I think that will be the case if quality of education is the real point of contention.

Barbara Donnelly Lane is a writer living in east Cobb who has contributed to the Marietta Daily Journal, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and BBC. She is working on her master's in teaching at Georgia State University. Her son is a sophomore at Walton High School.
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November 27, 2009
Ms. Lane,

You repeatedly refer to research that supports the decision for the new calender and the case for students to spend more time in class. My question for you is have you discovered research that explains why America's education system is in this embarrassing state? Why are we so far behind?

Let me give you a place to start. In the 1960's then President Johnson had a vision for his "Great Society". A big part of that vision was improving America's education system so that everyone would be a success. In fact, to ensure that everyone would be a success. Equipped with Johnson's vision of creating the Great Society education leaders, specialists and researchers set out to improve America's education system. Now, around forty-five years later, we have one of the worst education systems in world. What happened? Where did all this research and experimentation go wrong. Why don't we have the Great Society education system where everyone is a success. Where everyone is ensured of academic success? Maybe you can research and find the answer to this puzzling question.

Let me give you another point to consider. Before Johnson and his Great Society initiative we had years and years of experience with the traditional, agrarian school system. This system produced some of the greatest leaders, thinkers, doctors, business people, educators, scientists, engineers, ministers, and writers in the world. This system produced the Greatest Generation. This system produced the scientists and engineers that went to the moon and back. This system produced the people that built and managed the worlds greatest industrial production system. And all of this productivity build the greatest middle class society in the world. Maybe you can research and determine why this old agrarian system produced far greater productive people than today's new and improved version. As you know, today we can't go to the moon. We can't produce and make stuff. And our great middle class is shrinking. I would certainly be interested in your research and findings.

Our Man in Powder Springs
Band Parent
November 26, 2009
This author is truly out of touch i she believes that band is a "state-funded" extra-curricular activity. Band participation costs parents hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
you're kidding
November 23, 2009
This argument parrots the educrats in Cobb -- the whole "time to change the agrarian calendar" argument is ridiculous, like saying, "It's time to get rid of Christmas because people have artificial trees these days." And hey, let's cite the places that use the stretched out calendar, but not the places that have tried it and gone back to the traditional calendar. Finally, Ms. Donnelly obviously takes the board at their word that this calendar will be easier on the budget, when they really have no data supporting fiscal responsibility with this choice. Her failure to see the pattern of irresponsibility by the CCSD and this board makes one wonder if she should reside here just a bit longer before coming to conclusions about the motivations and wisdom of this calendar, implemented in Georgia where August bus temps reach over 115 degrees and air conditioning bills are quite higher than those in England. Good try ma'am, but your arguments don't hold up here in Cobb.
November 22, 2009
The "balanced school year" is probably an improvement over the traditional calendar because it keeps education more on the minds of students and because it allows breaks in different seasons, enabling varied vacations and yearning opportunities.

However, the argument that it will result in better retention because of shortened breaks seems very weak. It is true that we begin to forget lessons almost as soon as we learn them. The day a student graduates from high school there is a large discard of knowledge in the belief that most of it will never be applicable again. However, when we look at the "balanced" year, we find that it is the same length as before, and that the total number of days off is the same as before. While some breaks are shorter, others are longer. The only real difference in this regard is that there are more opportunities(breaks)for forgetting.

More breaks may be better, but let's not support the idea with fallacious reasoning.
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