It’s 2011, So Why Is The School Year Setup Straight Out Of 1962?

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It wasn’t until I had children that I realized I should have been a teacher. No matter that I don’t have the patience or the temperament for it; no matter that the pay often isn’t great, and that schools can be demanding, underfunded, frustrating places to work. (I’m Canadian, so can only talk about what goes on here.)

Quite simply, everything in the world of parents revolves around the school calendar. This is fantastic if you’re one of the relatively few who work in the school system. It’s terrible if you’re one of the vast majority who does not.

The prevailing wisdom around how the traditional North American school year came to be — six-hour days from September to May/June with a long summer break — is that it springs from an agrarian past. In fact, according to author Kenneth M. Gold, who wrote a whole book on the subject, that’s malarkey. Farming communities of old had breaks in the spring and fall to sow and reap the harvest, not the summer.

The fact is that in a world without air conditioning, major urban centers tended to be unbearably hot in the summer, he says. Wealthy folk — who were the most likely to have the luxury of sending their kids to school, after all — would gather up their kids and skedaddle to cooler climes.

That worked fine right up until droves of mothers started entering the workforce in the 1960s and ’70s. But it’s now 2011, and while the social landscape has been transformed, the school calendar is essentially stuck in 1962. Whose needs is it serving? Not the kids’: teachers routinely complain that September is spent reviewing knowledge that was lost over the summer. And certainly not those of most parents.

My husband and I both work outside the home, as is the case with most two-parent families I know, and we face huge scheduling and child-care challenges. When our five-year-old son went into kindergarten last year, I assumed our daycare costs (which are more than our annual mortgage payments) would plummet. Not so.

Why? Because here in British Columbia, where teachers are on the verge of a strike, in addition to the before-and-after-school care that brackets his meager six-hour school day, we had to cover six PD days, two weeks at Christmas, two weeks over spring break and nine weeks during the summer. That’s about 68 weekdays (adjusting for statutory holidays) during which regular folk are working, including six days set aside during teachers’ regular work schedule for their professional development. In what other job does one develop professionally at the direct expense of your clients?

My husband and I each get a generous three weeks of vacation, and if we used it separately to care for the kids, we could cover 30 days of that. Best-case scenario, that would still leave 38 more days to cover.

Last year, for our preschool daughter and school-aged son, we paid $17,000 in after-tax bucks for home-based childcare, which by definition can’t offer the same level of engagement as a classroom. That represents about $28,000 of gross pay. And we’re not outside the norm for Canadians who live in or close to major cities, where daycare is on average $35 to $40 a day.

My teacher friends, home with their school-aged kids whenever they’re not in school, pay a fraction of that, which goes some way to compensating for a salary that ranges, depending on seniority and qualifications, between $35k to $75k. (The entry range sure doesn’t go far in these parts. But, then again, teachers work on average 180 days a year; most jobs require around 240.)

Some schools in our district, to address the problem of kids’ knowledge retention, have instituted “all-year” school schedules, which spread out the annual 180 days of instruction more evenly, with a six-week summer break and longer gaps over the holidays and in the spring. This may help kids remember what they’ve learned, but it doesn’t help parents who are out earning money to pay for other people to care for their kids while they’re out of school.

I have enormous respect for teachers and the job they do. I think they should be paid more, and do more. They didn’t make the school calendar; the system did. I’d willingly pay more tax to have my kids at subsidized before- and after-school or summer programs that engage them physically and mentally in the learning environment they know.

That solution would give kids a leg up on learning, better reflect our societal landscape, and give parents a financial and logistical hand. Maybe it’s finally time that our school system entered the 21st century.

(Photo: iStockphoto)