Education reformers’ new craze: A war on summer vacation

As kids return to school, a crucial debate will pick up again. Here's why the "reformers" are off their rockers

Topics: Education Reform, summer vacation, Education, Arne Duncan, Editor's Picks, Gates Foundation, Teachers, Children, agrarian, Horace Mann, Asia, United States, ,

Education reformers' new craze: A war on summer vacationArne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates (Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Jeff Chiu/Mary Altaffer)

Could public education reformers take any more of the joy out of childhood? In the past year American students have seen a dramatic increase in the emphasis on standardized testing and a noticeable decrease in the appeal of their school lunches. Now, the target for school reformers is summer fun. Each year, as kids break free from classrooms and homework for a little while to pursue the joys of childhood, the issue of “summer vacation” leading to the “summer slide” rears its ugly head. Time and again, commentators weigh in on the problems of “stopping school” for a couple months when the pools open and the warm weather arrives. The primary criticism is that summer vacation leads to stagnation in learning. Now, as summer wanes and kids return to school, summer vacation and the “summer slide” will be topics of conversation again.

The most recent anti-summer fun entry comes from Cristina Evans, a teacher, who took to the pages of Education Week with “A Teacher’s Case Against Summer Vacation.” Like many reformers and summer vacation critics, Evans focuses specifically on the struggles of low-income and mostly urban students who tend to experience academic regression during the months off schools. This is known as the summer slide. To her credit, Evans doesn’t call for a radical end to summer vacation. Instead, she makes a rational argument for shortening it from maybe 10 weeks to six or so. And no one is arguing that we should ignore a summer slide in schools where it is evident. However, a blanket argument that summer vacation should be shorter across all schools is misguided at best. The reality is that summer vacation is embedded in our culture, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

The case against summer vacation has been made many times, and the carefree break from school has even been called “evil” by some commentators. The reality, though, is a bit different than the “history” indicates. The biggest problem with summer vacation criticism is that the primary argument is based on myth and misinformation.  It’s a myth perpetuated at the highest levels, as even Education Secretary Arne Duncan lacks knowledge of public education’s history, saying,  “Our school calendar is based on the agrarian economy and not too many of our kids are working in the fields today.” This is fundamentally not true. Summer vacation is not a leftover relic of America’s agrarian past, and it is not a result of our farming history or an “agrarian calendar” that released kids in the summer to work in the fields.  In fact, the opposite is more likely true, as American students in the 19th century were generally in school during the summer, but often took breaks in the spring and fall.

The history of summer vacation is not unclear to anyone willing to do a bit of research. First of all, up until the late 19th century, the school year, especially in the cities, was actually all year long. Year-round schooling was driven by the desire to have kids in school so their parents could work, especially in factories. In rural areas, kids were released in the spring and fall for planting and harvesting – not “summer vacation” to work in the fields. Thus, the “agrarian model” explanation is a myth, and up-to-date education researchers have known this for years.  Most of the work on a farm is done during spring and fall – planting and harvesting. The summer vacation schedule, as we know it today, was initially established to appeal to middle- and upper-class families (the ones who actually went beyond sixth grade) because these families wanted to get out of the hot, crowded cities (and classrooms) during the summer months, especially before the days of air conditioning. Education reformers such as Horace Mann supported this plan, as they believed school during summer was unnecessary and counterproductive. The “myth of summer vacation” has been well-documented over the years, though misconception persists. Perhaps the most informative analysis of the history comes from Kenneth Gold’s thoroughly researched treatise titled “School’s In: The History of Summer Vacation in American Public Schools.”

Yet, opposition to summer vacation is not just about an agrarian past. Another argument against a “summer break” is the general belief that American school calendars are simply too short. And some critics argue American schedules are out of sync with schools in the rest of the industrialized world. In fact, the documentary film “Two Million Minutes” is grounded in the mistaken belief that students in Asian countries spend twice as long in school as American students.  Both President Obama and Secretary Duncan have perpetuated the argument that the American “school day, week, and year” are too short. Their agenda for more school is based on the erroneous idea that Asian and European kids who beat American kids on international tests, such as the PISA exam, succeed because they spend more time in school.  Yet, like the myth of our “agrarian school calendar,” the persistent belief that other countries’ students spend more time in school is also not true. In reality, schools in Europe and Asia may have more school days, but American students actually spend more time in class. Asian school years have roughly 200 days, as compared to 180-day calendars in the United States; however, U.S. students average 1,140 instructional hours per year, whereas countries like high-achieving Singapore have closer to 900. Clearly, it’s not simply about school calendars.

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Of course, there are also numerous reasons why summer vacation is a good idea and why it actually benefits education. The reality is that not all learning, or even the best learning, happens in the classroom. Many Americans know the irreplaceable value of summer camp and summer athletics. Summer is, or can be, filled with organized activities that provide opportunities for teamwork and leadership and creativity and problem solving and simple cultural enrichment. While the benefits of such activities are not instantly recognizable on a standardized test, they are the foundation for the type of social-emotional development that is every bit as significant in children becoming successful adults. Beyond that, the simple benefits of free play are the best part of summer vacation – and they contribute to making kids into better students as well as happier people overall.  As critics call for changes to school schedules, parents and communities should know the facts for how to effectively use summer vacation for the type of enrichment that prevents summer regression in many kids.

Granted, the challenge for kids to engage in the opportunities summer vacation provides can be cost-prohibitive for lower-income students. And these students are not immune from the risk of summer slide. But there are ways to address these concerns by tailoring solutions to individual  communities. Short of cutting down on summer vacation across the board, one rational solution for low-income and low-achieving students suffering from academic loss might be finding a way to increase access to learning programs and activities and childcare during the summer. Rather than lengthening the school year, reformers might focus on better funding summer camps and increasing access to summer activities. In fact, the Gates Foundation could have more positively impacted struggling students by spending billions on summer learning programs and scholarships to camps and activities than it has done by wasting the money on unproven and ineffective ideas like the “small schools campaign” and the Common Core initiative.

Beyond the problems of a mythical agrarian calendar and the value of summer play, there are other reasons ending summer vacation is more complicated than it seems. For one, summer break is a primary component of the economy, and summer recreation businesses would reasonably oppose attempts to decrease the amount of time kids spend at summer camps, swimming pools and summer events. What’s more, public school teachers work on 10-month contracts. They are not yearly employees, and increasing a worker’s contract and work hours by nearly 18 percent would require commensurate compensation. That certainly won’t happen in a climate where education budgets continually see cuts. Check out your local pool manager – there’s a decent chance he or she is a teacher. That is why many teachers work at summer camps and pools during “vacation” – they are supplementing their income.

Thus, while there are reasons for increasing educational offerings, the outdated agrarian model and international comparisons are not valid ones. Yes, a longer school day and year can positively impact some students. However, many others are actually well-served by the numerous summer activities that enhance and add to their education as well-rounded citizens in ways that more classroom time drilling for standardized tests doesn’t. Many American high schools have large numbers of students taking Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and Concurrent Enrollment college classes while still in high school. These students earn college credit while in high school, and do so with the current 180-day schedule and a lengthy summer vacation. If anything, many students can get through K-12 effectively in less time, not more. If we are going to have effective discussion about education reform, we need to dispense with the perpetuation of myths by the misinformed, and move beyond the idea of a one-size-fits-all education system.

While a summer slide can be an issue in some schools, the existence of a real summer vacation is not the problem. “Making summer count” by improving the summer experience, rather than eliminating it, is the best curriculum for America’s children.  

Michael Mazenko is a teacher and school administrator in suburban Colorado. Follow him on Twitter at @mmazenko or email him at mmazenko@gmail.com.

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