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Welcome to Summer

In the last post I presented the case, reinforced by Premise 1, that a newly legitimized student voice for ownership of the learning process will require public education to move beyond traditional operations-based structures to client-focused system structures. This is a critical evolution point for Edushift because, as we know from Premise 3, structure drives behavior. So it is possible now to begin to examine the kinds of structural changes that would best support the move to client-focused educational systems. As we sip on our favourite cold beverage in the sunshine of the 2013 summer season, I have a suggestion to start this off. How about re-considering our traditional summer vacation? Now, I will admit from the outset that this is dangerous territory. After all, does any other country in the world appreciate its summer season more than Canada? The “great white north”, immersed as it is for much of the year with cold short days and colder long nights, has a strong tradition of aligning summer with vacation.

The bottom line is that our summers are wrapped in nostalgia; from cottages, summer camp, and trips to the beach to a two month break from school. We even have anthems - 40 years now of  Alice Cooper's School's Out for Summer. So it is understandable that attempts at restructuring summer break through “year round schooling” are met with general resistance. Simply put, a two month break is ingrained in our national psyche. So let’s take a look at this issue; year round schooling vs. our apparent desire to maintain the longstanding structure of a 10 month school year. But I’ll offer this advance warning – neither side passes the Edushift litmus test.

Perspective 1: Our summers are special and, to maintain the sanctity of family life and student well- being, require a parallel 2 month break from school. I have recently come to a new understanding of the context of our two month summer break - having previously placed my faith in the common belief that farm kids were needed to work on the family farm. In actuality the origins of summer holidays, in the American context anyway, appear to be linked to the demands of social elites that wanted their children to escape the heat of city schools for an extended break from, what was then, a considerably longer school year. In comparison, rural areas have actually seen an increase in the number of school days over time from their earliest beginnings. 

Consequently, contrary to popular belief, the extended summer break has evolved over time based upon a number of competing factors. Nonetheless, industrial era educational systems, working from a bell curve perspective, were never designed to maximize the number of graduates anyway. So it's fair to suggest that the educational demands of the majority held less weight compared to today, particularly given our societal need for higher graduation rates and the realities associated with Edushift Premise 1.

Adding to all of this is the fact that family structures have changed dramatically since the 1800’s, with the 2 month summer break now placing a comparably higher financial and educational strain on (single parent) families and their children.

Perspective 2: We need to re-align the school year through year round schooling to reduce the negative impact that our extended break has on student learning.  

Depending on one's viewpoint, the meaning of the term "year round schooling" can vary - from adding additional instructional time at one end of the spectrum to simply adjusting the school year calendar on the other. But, at the risk of over generalizing, the rationale offered for this perspective goes something like this: many students are struggling in school as demonstrated from regional and/or national achievement results that fall behind other countries that have a more fastidious approach to education. In response, let’s rearrange the instructional year to correct our summer break that keeps students away from the classroom for too long. So, the question on many people’s mind, especially those who most cherish the summer season, is how much additional time? If we reduced our school summer holidays by one week, would that help? How about two weeks? How about a month, How about eliminating it all together? In his book Catching up or Leading the Way, Yong Zhao presents a compelling case that American education is mistakenly using China as an example to support the development of more rigid systems that, among other things, would increase instructional time for students. (Ironically, this is happening at the same time that China is attempting to reform its educational systems to bring more personalization and creativity to the learning process for its students.)

Instead of deliberating about how long the summer break should be, perhaps we should be asking ourselves is this the right question? Let’s start back at the beginning with the Edushift case for a move to client-focused educational systems.

We can agree that our educational systems were not originally designed to maximize the number of graduates. So, at the heart of the summer vacation schedule is an assumption that students who are on track to receiving a high school diploma will complete the curricular expectations of the system within the constructs of that system. Consequently, we have grade structures that are pre-designed to cover 10 months of a 12 month time period that is interrupted by a 2 month summer break. The student is expected to fit this systematic structure.

And yes, we have all sorts of “intervention” tools such as summer school to address the needs of struggling students. But, similar to the concept of year round schooling, these are simply an add-on to the larger system structure already in place. The truth is, our school year structure acts like a freeway with speed bumps. On an annual basis, we speed up to slow down, to speed up again. It is without logic.

Think of the amount of time, energy and resources that are spent each year so that students can move along one grade at a time – from the annual transfer of students from one classroom to another, to the need for new teacher to student relationships and classroom behavioral norms, to the organizational start-up time required at the beginning of the year, and the waste of pre-summer wind down time that traditionally pre-empts the eventual shut down. And, to complicate matters further, education has a budgetary structure that conflicts with the calendar year used by the majority of businesses and other organizations.

How many struggling students begin each year with promise of a new start only to have their hopes dashed by finding, once again, that they can’t keep up? A client-focused educational system would work from a different perspective. Unlike our current systems that expect the progress of students to align with annual grade structures, a client-focused system would support strong student to teacher relationships that seek to ensure overall compliance with curricular expectations while accounting for the ebb and flow of student skill acquisition. By definition, this type of client service could only exist without pre-determined grades. 

It’s easy for us to maintain our current school year structure from the belief that we need a two month summer break from school. It’s also comparatively easy to believe that we can resolve the issues associated a two month break by simply adjusting the school year holiday schedule or by adding more instructional time to our status quo structures. It’s far more exciting to consider the opportunities that could arise from re-designing our educational systems to account for the learning style and time that each student needs to succeed. 

Given the choice, how many families and students would opt to continue the progress of their educational goals over part of the summer? More to the point, if our educational systems can agree that there are (X ) number of instructional available in the school year, shouldn't the client be able to decide when to access them? Consider how this one change in system structure would legitimize student ownership of the learning process and strengthen the student to teacher (coach) relationship to meet curricular expectations. Our systems should be able to reply, in kind, with an educational service that meets client needs.

There are opportunities abound to challenge our concept of what school should look like. But this foundational example of Edushift Premise 3 allows us to get at the heart of the teacher to student relationship, encourage creative and exciting learning environments and reduce the strain of trying to fit different student learning styles into pre-imposed timelines. Let’s replace our age and grade based speed bumps with client-focused progress lanes.

We can do this.

Another cold beverage anyone?

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