Flexible Learning Year: Some Preliminary Research

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about the calendar proposal that Dr. Richardson will be presenting to the school board in January. Here’s a rather lengthy report on the research I’ve done so far on the topic.


Provisions for a “flexible learning year” were adopted into Minnesota statute in 1974. The statute allows districts “to evaluate, plan and employ the use of flexible learning year programs,” including year-round school. The current statute is 124D.12. The statute requires negotiations with staff and public meetings with parents and community members before implementation of a flexible learning year plan (124D.124). Plans are subject to approval by the state education commissioner. After three years, districts must submit an application to the commissioner to continue on a flexible learning year.

In 1998, the Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning (Department of Education) convened a Working Group on Alternative Calendars to study the issue of implementing modified or year-round school calendars. The report of the working group summarized current research on the educational benefits of modified calendars, and recommended that local school districts be allowed to implement calendar reform, but advised against a state-wide adoption of an extended learning year.

In early 2006, the Minnesota Association of School Administrators (MASA) proposed increasing the school year from 172-174 days to 200 school days, with a shorter summer break. According the former MASA Executive Director Charlie Kyte, “students would not have the long layoff of the summer months which results in so much learning regression, especially for students struggling to learn” (Kyte 2006).  MASA proposed phasing in a new year-round calendar over five years, and acknowledged that the extra cost of increasing staff days would be approximately $200 million a year.

MASA later backed down from some of the details of this proposal, and called instead for increasing the school year to 180 days, which is the average length of the school year in the United States. In Minnesota, the average school year is 175 days (Fitzgerald 2009). Since taking office in 2009, President Obama has repeatedly called for lengthening the school year in the United States, which has a shorter school year than most other developed countries.  The international average length of the school year in 2009 was 194 days.

Proponents of a year-round school calendar, including MASA and President Obama, point out that the traditional school calendar, with its long summer break, has its origins in a time when the United States was primarily agricultural, and school-age children were often needed to help on the farm. Proponents argue that such a calendar puts the United States at a competitive disadvantage in a twenty-first century economy in which other countries have adopted a longer school year.

It should be noted, however, that according to historian of education Kenneth M. Gold, American summer vacation as we know it was actually the creation of nineteenth-century urban elites who wanted to get out of the city during the hot months of July and August. Rural school breaks were typically in the spring and fall, during planting and harvest seasons (Gold 2002).

Although there has been little progress on MASA’s proposals since 2006, changes to the length of the school year remain on MASA’s legislative agenda. The MASA 2011 Legislative Platform called for providing “more classroom time for every student and preparation time for every teacher” through “an incremental increase in learning time…over the next several years.” Furthermore, MASA calls for restructuring “the learning year to minimize learning regression.” The group argues that “more frequent, but shorter breaks for students” will result in “less loss of education progress” (MASA 2011). The same items were repeated in the 2012 Legislative Platform.

In the 2011-2012 legislative session, a Flexible Learning Year bill was introduced in the Minnesota House to allow schools to start before Labor Day. Currently, a waiver from the Minnesota Department of Education is required for a pre-Labor Day start.

Proposal and Research

The proposal currently before the Northfield school board calls for starting the school year in mid-August; ending the school year before Memorial Day; and one-week breaks in the fall (coinciding with the traditional “MEA” break), winter, and spring (coinciding with the Carleton and St. Olaf College spring break).  The suggested benefits of the proposed calendar modifications would be to provide more instructional days before high-stakes standardized testing dates, and to balance the first and second semesters (meaning that first semester final exams would fall before instead of after winter break). The mid-August start time would coincide with the start of fall sports practice, and with the start of the MnSCU (Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system) academic year, which will make it easier for students participating in the PSEO (post-secondary enrollment option) program at MnSCU schools. Under this proposal, the length of summer vacation would remain the same (approximately twelve weeks), and the total number of instructional days (174) would remain the same.

Most of the research on modified calendars is on year-round school and its possible effects on student achievement. Harris Cooper et al. (1996), in a meta-analysis of research looking at the effect of summer vacation on student achievement scores, found some evidence that year-round school, with a shortened summer break, had a positive effect on the academic achievement of disadvantaged youth, who might not otherwise have access to summer academic enrichment opportunities.

A further study in 2003 on the effects of a shortened summer vacation on summer learning regression (also known as “summer slide”) was inconclusive. “If the results of our synthesis are informative,” the study concludes, “they suggest a modified calendar effect on achievement is quite small (approximately .05 standard deviation) relative to other effects associated with educational interventions” (Harris et al. 2003, 43).

The proposal before the Northfield school board is not for year-round school, but instead redistributes the current number of instructional days to provide more instructional days before standardized testing dates. A 2010 study of Minnesota achievement test scores does indicate that an increased number of instructional days before standardized testing dates has a positive impact on student performance, but that the quality of instruction, regardless of the number of instructional days, is more important. The authors caution that “more instructional time can be used to meet goals, but…more time is neither a perfect substitute for, nor the same thing as, better use of time” (Marcotte and Hansen 2010).

The same authors point out that some school districts (as Northfield is proposing to do) “game accountability systems by rearranging school calendars so that students have more time in school prior to the exam, even as the overall length of the school year remains constant” (Marcotte and Hansen 2010).

In 2010, a consortium of twenty-five public school districts in southwestern Minnesota received permission to institute a flexible learning year similar to the one proposed in Northfield. The flexible learning year in southwestern Minnesota was the subject of a program on Twin Cities Public Television in January 2012, which indicated a positive response to a flexible learning year.

AYP index rate data, based on MCA scores, indicates modest consortium-wide gains in reading proficiency scores since the flexible learning year was implemented in 2010 (source: Redwood Area School District FLY Application 2013-2016 PowerPoint) :

Consortium-Wide AYP Index Rate (Reading)

2009    80.67%

2010    79.75%

2011    81.73%

2012    82.46%

Math scores rose from 2009 to 2010, dropped in 2011 (as did scores state-wide, due to the introduction of the new MCA-III math test), and rebounded again in 2012. GRAD writing scores have remained flat (91.0% in both 2009 and 2012).

It is worth noting that not all schools in the consortium posted gains over the three-years of the program. In the Windom Public School district, for example, scores in both reading and math have declined or flattened out since 2009.  In 2011, the Edgerton superintendent said: “One of the things we were hoping to achieve was seeing an improvement in scores with the additional time…There was some, but there were a number of districts in the southwest corner of the state where this probably wasn’t achieved to the level we wanted to see” (Kuphal 2011). Edgerton did, however, post gains in 2012. This raises the question of whether the flexible calendar is responsible for the gains, or if the gains were the result of some other intervention on the part of the schools.

It should also be noted that proficiency rates have also risen in districts that are not on a flexible learning year system. Northfield, Lakeville, and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan have all posted modest gains since 2009. It can be argued that it is difficult to isolate the effect of the flexible learning year from other factors influencing increased student achievement, such as changes in the quality and effectiveness of instruction, and increased familiarity with the tests.


The graphs on the left show proficiency rates (2008-2012) for three schools in the southwestern Minnesota flexible learning year consortium. The graphs on the right show the same data for Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, Northfield, and Lakeville (schools not currently on a flexible learning year with an August start). Source: MInnesota Department of Education Data Center.


Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K., Lindsay, J., and Greathouse, S. 1996. “The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores: A Narrative and Meta-Analytic Review.” Review of Educational Research 66 (3), pp. 227-68.

Cooper, H., Valentine, J.C., Charlton, K., Melson, A. 2003. “The Effects of Modified School Calendars on Student Achievement and on School and Community Attitudes,” Review of Educational Research 73 (1), pp. 1-52.

Fitzgerald, John. 2009. “Minnesota’s School Year Requirements Too Casual.” MN2020 October 9, 2009 (http://www.mn2020.org/issues-that-matter/education/minnesota-school-year-requirements-too-casual)

Gold, Kenneth M. 2002. School’s In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools. Peter Lang Publishing.

Kirk, Jenny. 2012. “Willert informs Marshall School Board about flexible learning year process.” Marshall Independent August 22 (http://www.marshallindependent.com/page/content.detail/id/535597/Willert-informs-Marshall-School-Board-about-flexible-learning-year-process.html?nav=5015)

Krause, Troy. 2012. “Flexible Learning Year data shows progress.” Redwood Falls Gazette November 28 (http://www.redwoodfallsgazette.com/article/20121128/NEWS/121129536)

Kuphal, Kyle. 2011. “Perceptions favorable of flexible learning Year.” Pipestone County Star Online October 26 (http://www.pipestonestar.com/Stories/Story.cfm?SID=33645)

Kyte, Charlie. 2006. “Why is MASA Proposing to Lengthen the School Year?” Leaders Forum. Minnesota Association of School Administrators. p. 12.

Marcotte, Dave E. and Benjamin Hansen. 2010. “Time for School?” EducationNext 10.1. (http://educationnext.org/time-for-school/)

MASA (Minnesota Association of School Administrators).  2011 Legislative Platform. (http://www.mnasa.org)

Twin Cities Public Television. “New Learning Landscapes.” January 18, 2012. (http://www.mnvideovault.org/index.php?id=23094&select_index=4&popup=yes#4)

Working Group on Alternative Calendars. 1998. “Report to the Legislature.” (http://conservancy.umn.edu/handle/3673)

3 thoughts on “Flexible Learning Year: Some Preliminary Research

  1. Three reactions:

    1. THANK YOU for doing and posting this research, complete with sources. This is the first time anyone connected with the schools has done taxpayers and parents this courtesy before implementing a new initiative. I’m really, really tired of the district’s reliance on the “Research has shown” construction. I don’t let my first year students get away with this!

    2. The data do not seem to show an unambiguous positive effect. Given that the disruption to at least some families is likely to be severe, with no clear benefit to many students, I don’t see the case being made. (Perhaps explaining why, in this instance, the superintendent did not want us peons to see “the research.”)

    3. How ’bout, before we go looking for exotic, extreme, expensive new initiatives, we start with some of the basics: Implementing and enforcing the use of best practice throughout the district, in all builidings (yes, even the high school. and yes, EVEN if it interferes a bit with sports).

  2. As a family that uses the many long weekend breaks to reunite with a spouse in another state, the fewer week breaks would be a disruption for us. Also, coming from a school district where this schedule is in effect, we’d like to let everyone know that the hot final days of August have a VERY negative effect on the beginning of the school year. I don’t know how our buildings are equipped to handle the heat, but even if air conditioning exists, there may be significant added cost for running at full operation during August. Hot students and teachers make very poor learning environments and very cranky kids. I’d like to see significant benefit before making changes – especially for challenged families to find childcare for several week long breaks. At the same time, I am not fundamentally opposed to a change – if it makes sense and has well thought out reasons. In Northfield however, it seems unlikely that a calendar change is the most effective way to influence scores – we have an excellent education system that usually doesn’t look for simple cookie cutter fixes and finds effective and creative ones that work better. Is this an instance where we should take another look to see if we are really identifying the issues and addressing them in the best way?

  3. Pingback: On the Decision-Making Process | Learning Curve

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