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Why Do We Still Have Summer Vacation?

• June 01, 2013 • 6:00 AM

(PHOTO: SAKKMESTERKE/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Forget the argument about a calendar built around an agrarian economy. It was urbanization that created summer as we know it—and now we can’t imagine doing anything else.

Next week begins, in many cases, the three-month period that is summer vacation from school. For those of us long outside of education, and without children of our own, it may be a little hard to recall the sheer joy that is summer vacation. Three whole months outside of the classroom. Your mother surely got annoyed with your sunburns, the fact that you preferred to spend the day playing video games, and your demands to be taken over to your friends’ houses to play, but at least for a few days after school let out in June, did anything on Earth seem better?

But if for children those three months feel like a much-needed break from all that hard work, summer vacation really has nothing to do with children at all.

It exists, most Americans believe, only because in the early days of the United States free primary schools mostly educated the children of farmers. And they needed the kids at home because summer (or, well, roughly May to October) is the primary growing season.

As Harris Cooper, chairman of the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience at Duke University, explained, “the present nine-month calendar emerged when 85 percent of Americans were involved in agriculture and when climate control in school buildings was limited.” But now that only three percent of Americans live on farms, shouldn’t we keep them in school for much of the summer?

And if there’s no need to keep them at home, why aren’t they learning for those three months? On average, American schoolchildren lose the equivalent of about one month of instruction over summer vacation. The impact is most dramatic in spelling and math. Indeed, it’s one of the simplest concerns of education reformers. Though many school improvement strategies are controversial—paying teachers for performance, providing national preschool programs—this one is pretty widely agreed upon.

As Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time and Learning, said last year, “surely, eliminating the long summer break by making our school year longer, at least for schools serving poor neighborhoods, seems a ready solution to a problem that has enormously negative implications.” In 2009, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that “our school calendar is based upon the agrarian economy and not too many of our kids are working the fields today.”

Even one high school student in Connecticut wrote in an editorial for The Hartford Courant that, “if young children have minds ready to learn, high school students have a vitality that makes them ready to work and … teachers are … as capable to work year-round as their non-teacher adult counterparts…. Why am I home?” (Bet he was popular with the other kids.)

But like making Christmas less commercial or making Congress less partisan, this one is never going to happen.

The kids still come home every year despite the fact that no one seems to think that a year-round school schedule is a bad idea. And yet no one’s pushing to make it happen.

In fact, all schools on Earth, and all education systems throughout time, have had arbitrary and somewhat impractical school plans. In the early American system, not everyone had the same vacation schedules. And our long summer vacation, despite what Arne Duncan says, isn’t really based upon the agrarian economy. In earlier days, American schools had very different schedules, and it didn’t work out so well. As Ken Gold, associate professor of education at the City College of Staten Island, explained to NPR two years ago:

The academic calendar with a long summer holiday didn’t come about until the early 20thcentury. Previously, urban schools operated year-round with short breaks between quarters. In 1842, Detroit’s academic year lasted approximately 260 days, New York’s 245, and Chicago’s 240. But since education wasn’t mandatory in most states until the 1870s, attendance was low. Despite the official schedule, many kids ended up spending the same amount of time in school back then as they do now. Brooklyn school officials, for example, reported in 1850 that more than half their students showed up just six months a year.

But it wasn’t a desire to keep everyone working on the farm during the summer that caused schools to adopt the three-month vacation; it was just an effort to standardize schooling across the country. Urbanization created the long summer vacation, not an agricultural economy. If all students had more or less the same schedule it was easier to administer testing and sell standardized education materials like textbooks.

There’s a lot of talk about how America is “losing ground” in education—the country ranks 27th in high school completion rates among developed nations. According to the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), an international test of student knowledge, American fourth graders rank among the top 10 countries in performance in math and science—but by eighth grade, they fall below developing countries like Latvia and the Slovak Republic due  to a second-rate education system. Still, no one can demonstrate that we’re losing because of summer vacation.

One problem with the “eliminate summer vacation so we can compete with the rest of the world” philosophy is that it isn’t really a reflection of reality. Arne Duncan, a few years ago: “Our students today are competing against children in India and China. Those students are going to school 25 to 30 percent longer than we are. Our students, I think, are at a competitive disadvantage.” Not really.

While students in Europe and Asia many have different education schedules, they don’t really spend more time in school. That’s because of the distinction between the number of days spent in the classroom and the hours in a day devoted to actual instruction. When one combines these numbers it appears Americans are spending just as much time in school as students in most other countries. American students living in some of the most populous states—California, Florida, New York, Texas, and Massachusetts—spend about 900 hours a year in school. India requires 800 to 900 instructional hours per year, depending on the grade. China, too, provides about 900 hours of instruction per year.

The hours of compulsory instruction per year provided to students in other developed countries range from 608 hours in Finland to 926 hours in France. And Finland is a top-performing county in terms of education, its children averaging among the world’s best-educated students.

Schooling schedules throughout history have varied widely. In 16th-century England boys went to school from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. (with two hours off for lunch) six days a week, virtually year-round. In ancient Rome, children (or, well, upper-class boys) attended school seven days a week, from sun-up to sun-down, though there were extensive religious holidays and students didn’t attend school on market days. They also appear to have had pretty long summer vacations, probably because it was simply too hot to study.

In Egypt today, summer break is often four months long, running from the middle of May until the middle of September. In India, summer vacation varies depending on the region. In the northern part of the country, school ends on May 1 and begins again on July 1. In southern India, school ends in the last week of March and begins in June.

Schooling schedules have long been based more on cultural patterns than on efficient education strategies. We’ve run school like this not because it works for education, but because it works for society.

Education reformers have been trying for almost 50 years to keep students in school longer. And it mostly hasn’t worked. In the 1990s many Texas school districts instituted year-round schooling. Such initiatives were announced with great fanfare. Texas had almost 400 year-round schools by 1997. And then school districts quietly gave up the project. A decade later there were only 126 such schools. Part of the reason was that it just didn’t work. As one Dallas principal explained, “there was no proof it helped with test  scores, or attendance, or anything.”

And parents also hated the calendar. Many teachers and school board members found that the new schedule disrupted “family lives and vacation planning.” The plan was particularly difficult when different schools adopted different schedules (in order to pool resources) and families had children on dissimilar school calendars. California also discovered that parents had other plans or simply weren’t willing to be around every week from the end of May until the end of August. They wanted to go to the beach, too—at least sometimes. When the Los Angeles School Board, which had adopted year-round school in the late ’80s, gave schools the option of returning to a traditional schedule, 543 of its 544 schools chose to do so.

Back in 1971, one survey showed that 84 percent of people in the country believed that schooling would be year-round by 1986, just 15 years later. This year, right on time, we’ll hear more calls for an all-year school system. Ignore them. This will never happen.

One middle school teacher, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, wrote that teachers are working throughout the summer, taking classes and attending “conferences or seminars to learn new strategies in order to fill in gaps that might exist in your current curriculum units. Adult humans,” she explained, “aren’t built to spend their days with hundreds of children each day. It takes a lot out of an adult to have their antennae up so high, so often, and so consistently.”

She might be wrong about the facts (is it really true that teachers are unable to teach effectively without a few months in the summer off?) or highly selective in her presentation of these facts, but she’s right about the sentiment. We’re not going to school in the summer because we just don’t want to. We have other plans.

Daniel Luzer
Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_Luzer.

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