When I was a kid, back to school meant Labor Day in early September, and for most of the U.S. before the 1990s, that was true. But no more.
Data from MDR (a school data and marketing company) shows that “…roughly 25% of schools open sometime between Aug. 1 and Aug. 15 and another 25% before Aug. 31. Though every state has a number of early and late opening schools, early openings are concentrated largely in the South (AL, GA, KY, LA, MS, TN) and Midwest (IN, MO, OK, NE) along with AZ, HI, NM and roughly 45% of California’s schools. The majority of schools in MA, MI, MN, NJ, NY, OR, VA, WA and WI open after Aug 31.” (source: Anne Wujcik)
But how did this happen? CNN answers that question here: Back to school: Why August is the new September.
- Testing: Since most standardized testing happens at a fixed date in the spring, starting earlier gives time for more test prep, and less time after the tests to “waste”. The trend to earlier openings started in the 1990’s along with No Child Left Behind.
- Semester breaks better aligned to holidays: Starting in August means the first semester can end before the winter holidays. There can be a longer fall break in September or October, and spring breaks that fall more cleanly in mid-semester.
- Alignment with college calendars: Colleges tend to end the year around Memorial Day.
One other reason that CNN didn’t mention is that in locations with a large immigrant population, many families go home to celebrate Christmas and need extra time for travel and traditions. In Mexico for example, the Christmas celebrations extend to January 6. Giving families an extra week off after New Year’s makes it more likely that all students will be back in school for the start of the second semester.
While it’s a shame that once again, testing is driving educational decisions, there is no magic formula for when school should begin or end. It’s changed over time in the U.S. and will likely change in the future. Here’s a fun list of school start dates around the world.