District Trendline

August 2016: Student and teacher school year

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Summer break has come to a close in many districts across the country and that means it's time for teachers and students to head back to school. It also means the articles about school starting earlier and earlier are appearing in newspapers. This month, we analyze school calendars for the 2016-2017 school year to answer some key questions.[1] Is school really starting earlier? How long is the school year for students and teachers?

When do teachers start school?

While 90 percent of districts in the database call teachers back to school in the month of August, start dates for teachers are as early as July 25th in Cobb County (GA) and as late as September 6th in Boston, New York City, and Rochester.

Sioux Falls is the only district in the database that has different start dates for teachers based on the grade levels they teach. Elementary teachers start back on August 29 while secondary teachers start back on August 30.


Is school starting earlier?

You often hear people say that school seems to be starting earlier and earlier. We look at data in 111 school districts over the past five years, going back to the 2012-2013 school year to see if there is a trend in teachers starting school earlier.[2]

There is some evidence of a shift towards earlier start dates. In about half of the school districts (59), teachers are heading back to school this year anywhere from one to 17 calendar days earlier than in 2012.[3] Some of this shift may be because dates and days of the week naturally shift across years. For example, in Fort Worth (TX), school has started for teachers on the third Monday in August every year since 2012. In 2012, that was August 20; in 2016, that day is August 15. By our estimation there are at least 40 districts where, like in Fort Worth, teachers technically start earlier (9 districts) or later (31 districts) this year than in 2012, but it's likely due to a natural shift in the calendar and not to an intentional policy shift.

Sioux Falls has seen the biggest shift in teacher start dates since 2012 with elementary teachers starting 15 calendar days later this year. In contrast, teachers in Greenville County (SC) are starting 13 calendar days earlier in 2016 than they did in 2012. In both cases, the length of the teacher school year hasn't changed much; in Sioux Falls teachers are working the same number of days and in Greenville County teachers are working four more days.

What about the tradition of students starting back to school after Labor Day? While we do not track student calendars, it is possible to approximate start dates for students from the teacher calendar. We looked at how many districts require teachers to report to school the week before or the week of Labor Day, assuming that students would then be more likely to be starting post-Labor Day. Over the past five years, about a quarter of the districts in our sample appear to delay the start of student school year until after Labor Day.

While there are fewer districts starting near Labor Day in 2016 than there were in 2012 (21 districts compared to 26), this may be because of fluctuations in the calendar. In 2012, 2013, and 2014 there were no school days in September before Labor Day, while in 2015 and 2016 there were four and two days, respectively. This could explain why there was a drop in the number of districts starting after Labor Day in 2015 and 2016 as some districts may have policies about teachers starting work the first week of September.

How long is the school year for students?

As in years past, the average length of the student school year among districts in the database is 178 days for both elementary and secondary students. The most common length of school year is 180 days.[4]

Baltimore County has the longest school year in the database—189 days for elementary students and 190 days for secondary students. Baltimore County has held this distinction since the 2013-2014 school year. Joining Baltimore County at the top of the list is Newark where students attend for 185 days this year. Two Louisiana school districts, Caddo Parish and New Orleans, have the shortest school year for students at 167 days. .

There are 11 districts that have different school years for elementary and secondary students. In the graph above, we averaged the two schedules to derive one figure. In most cases, the difference between the two calendars is only a day or two. One exception is Buffalo, where there is an 11 day difference in student school year between elementary and secondary students; elementary students are in school 182 days this year, while secondary students are in school for 171 days. This large discrepancy comes from the district practice of not taking high school attendance on days designated for state testing (Regents Exams).

How long is the school year for teachers?

While start dates may be trending earlier, the length of the school year has remained steady. Teachers are in school an average of 187 days across districts in the database, the same as in 2014-2015.[5]

The District of Columbia and Norfolk (VA) top the list for longest teacher year, with teachers reporting to work for 196 days and 195 days, respectively. Teachers in Caddo Parishhave the fewest number of work days, working only 172 days.

On average, teachers in Teacher Contract Database districts are in school about 10 days more than their students.[6] In other words, the teacher school year is about 5 percent longer than the student school year, just as it was during the 2014-2015 school year.

In most of the districts, elementary and secondary teachers are required to be on-site without students the same number of days each year. In 22 districts, the requirements are different for elementary and secondary teachers. For example, elementary grades might have more early release days than secondary grades where teachers must remain on-site for planning or professional development purposes when students go home early. In these cases, we averaged the number of days elementary and secondary teachers are required to be on-site to determine the categorization above.

Have your own questions about calendars? You can access school calendars and other data by visiting the Teacher Contract Database.

The Teacher Contract Database includes information on over 145 school districts in the United States:  the 60 largest districts in the country, the largest district in each state, the member districts of the Council of Great City Schools, and districts which won the Broad Prize for Urban Education. The database features answers to over 100 policy questions and provides access to teacher contracts, salary schedules, and board policies in addition to relevant state laws governing teachers. 

[1] All of the districts in the Teacher Contract Database have been included in this analysis with the exception of Detroit and the two charter management organizations in the database, Aspire and Green Dot. We have not yet analyzed Detroit's 2016-2017 calendar and calendars in Aspire and Green Dot vary by school site.

[2] We used any districts currently in the Teacher Contract Database that we had data for going back to 2012.

[3] To download the data used for this portion of the analysis, including a list of the 111 districts, click here.

[4] For our calculations, we count half days for students as full days.

[5] Not included in the graphs in this section is San Diego where we did not have information about the teacher calendar for this school year.

[6] When calculating the number of days teachers are required to be on-site without students, NCTQ's counts include early release days for students when teachers must remain on site as a half day.