“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.”
Ah, summer is finally here. Without the frantic run around, the pace of life has slowed to the norm of days gone by. For some kids, summer begets lazy mornings, pickup games in the park, family outings and time for discovery.
But for some, it means days of sitting around the house, watching TV and playing endless hours of video games or being shuffled to affordable summer programs so parents can get to work.
So: Two months of summer vacation does allow kids to kick back, but at what academic cost? What happens to learning during this down time?
Many Americans consider summertime as a carefree, happy time when “kids can be kids.” We take advantage of enriching experiences like summer camps, time with family, and trips to museums, parks, and libraries.
Unfortunately, some youths face anything but tranquil summer months. When the school gates close, many children struggle to access not only educational opportunities, but basic needs like healthy meals and adequate adult supervision.
The truth is, most modern American parents work year round and scramble to find fun, safe, affordable programs during school vacations and holidays that schools take but employers do not.
So why does school end in June and start back in late August?
As Rachael Stark explains in her article History of the Summer Vacation, and Lucas Reilly explains in his Why Do Students Get Summers Off?, contrary to popular belief, summer vacations did not arise from the need to have the family gather the harvest. Before the Civil War, farm children never had summers off. They went to school during the hottest and coldest months and stayed home during the spring and fall, when families needed help planting and harvesting crops.
And in the city, kids hit the books all year long — summers included. In 1842, Detroit’s academic year lasted 260 days! During the Industrial Revolution, urban schools provided no long summer vacation that modern Americans now take for granted. New immigrant families, like working families today, needed a safe and affordable place for children to stay while parents worked. So, in large cities, children of working parents were in school for an 11-month school year.
The other American revolution
Reilly says that summer vacation was the invention of the industrial era and the rise of the middle class. As cities got denser, they got hotter.
He says that during this time, leisure time was becoming more important. With this culture change and emerging labor unions and accompanying eight hour work day, working adults were getting more time to themselves than ever before. Summer school absenteeism became an issue as parents wanted, and could finally afford, to take a summer break. Families of wealth — typically the mothers and children — could be found at summer getaways for months at a time, along with the servants. The wealthy families were free to take long vacations without worrying about missing days from work.
Advocates for summer vacation time argued (incorrectly) that the brain was a muscle and, like any muscle, it could suffer injuries if overused. Students might strain their brains with a yearlong school program. In addition, air conditioning had not been invented, so city schools during summertime were miserable, half-empty ovens.
By the turn of the century, urban districts had managed to cut about 60 school days from the hottest part of the year. Rural schools soon adopted the same pattern. Businesses caught on to a new opportunity — and the summer vacation was born. Businesses that catered to summer vacations ballooned into what is now one of the country’s largest billion-dollar industries.
Impact on education
According to the Achievement Gap, to succeed in school and life, children and young adults need ongoing opportunities to learn and practice essential skills. This is especially true during the summer months.
According to research, during the summer:
▪ Young people experience learning losses when they do not engage in educational activities.
▪ Most students lose about two months of grade-level equivalency in mathematical computation skills. Low-income students also lose more than two months in reading achievement.
▪ Unequal access to summer learning opportunities is the basis of the majority of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth.
▪ Children — particularly those at high risk of obesity — gain more weight during summer break.
▪ Many children are less productive.
The controversy of year-round schooling lies in the debate about how much time needs to be spent in classrooms, when that time should be scheduled, and how to maximize free-range play.
The traditional American school year was designed around a nine-month schedule requiring 180 days in the classroom. In comparison, year-round schooling — a misleading term which makes people think that they will lose summer vacation altogether — is simply the same 180 day school year, arranged differently. With this calendar, which aims to maximize retention and achievement, there are smaller but more frequent breaks throughout the year. The summer break is typically one month, instead of two or three.
The argument for year-round school
Matthew Lynch in his EdWeek article, Year-Round Schooling: Why It’s Time to Change, says that when public schools first started popping up in the U.S., they were considered secondary to other hands-on pursuits. Learning to read, write and perform arithmetic in classrooms was valued less highly than was the work of building the nation and keeping up family farms.
The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research finds that the average American student is off from school 13 weeks/calendar school year — with approximately 10-11 of those being consecutive during June-August. Few other countries have this arrangement. Although 10 percent of U.S. schools have transitioned to a year-round school calendar with shorter breaks inserted throughout the year, the majority of U.S. schools still follow a summers-off schedule.
But why? There appear to be no perilous economic nor medical reasons that require three consecutive months off from school in the middle of the calendar. Does it remain so because it’s easier than changing it?
Addressing the summer slide
In her article, Should Kids be Going to School During the Summer?, Caroline Alphonso says that in parts of Canada, summer school is part of an increasingly urgent experiment to address what some experts now believe about summer — that a nine-week break negatively affects students’ achievement.
While Canadian education still ranks highly on the world stage, other countries have been making big gains for students. And a number of them, including the U.S., are rethinking a year-round learning calendar.
Lynch addresses the pressure on teachers to generate high-performing students. Research shows that excessive time off from the school can actually undo the hard work teachers put in to their students during the school year. Many teachers report that the first two to three months of each school year are spent teaching remedial skills from the previous grade — wasting even more of the time that should go into further learning.
And education research is very clear about the impact of the typical school year on disadvantaged students. The summer months have been considered “the most dangerous season of the year” for low-income children, who tend to not have the same enrichment opportunities. Reading, in particular, is a weak spot (low-income students generally lose ground over the break, while high-income kids can gain).
Advocates including President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan suggest that bridging this socio-economic academic gap can be achieved with year-round learning.
The argument against year-round schools
▪ For every parent happy to restart the school season to keep their kids competitive, there is a parent who resents the idea of the school system taking away concentrated family vacation time. Parents feel that a long summer vacation is essential to growing up.
▪ Kids need a break. Alphonso says that parents feel a long summer break is a time to regroup after a busy year. Others emphasize that time off from school can offer different learning experiences, including the power of outdoor play, or simply an OFF period to counteract the uber-jammed, overstructured school year.
▪ Teachers need a break, too. Although teachers are the first to agree that an academic slide occurs when kids are not provided with equal access to summertime learning opportunities, they also feel that two months away from the classroom is essential for their own reflection and rejuvenation — two months without being around children for seven hours every day and spending their evenings deep in grading or lesson planning.
▪ Although a yearlong school calendar provides teachers and administrators with equal amounts of time off (spread out with shorter but more frequent breaks over 12 months), the opportunity to seek adjunctive employment to supplement their annual incomes over these shorter — albeit more frequent — breaks would become more difficult. It is also hard to determine how shorter breaks would impact time for necessary mental decompression and inspiration.
▪ Summertime, enrichment activities are good for all kids. What about a county-supported archeology or drama camp?
▪ Summertime tutoring? One-on-one or group sessions provide students the ability to brush up on certain lessons to get ahead of the new school year.
▪ Parent instruction? Daryl Nelson, in his article “Should parents make their kids do school work during summer break?” says there are benefits for some kids to continue their studies during the summer.
▪ Alternative calendars? The “45-15” calendar is one where nine-week terms alternate with three-week vacations throughout the year. Kids start school in “waves,” rather than all on the same day. In this system, one group is always on vacation during any given week. Schools are less crowded, with fewer students on campus at once, but still serve the same number of children.
▪ Sparking interest? Taking your eighth- through 11th-grade children on college tours during the summer can be a big motivator. Nelson says that kids need to see what college is really like to get a better sense of why they need to do well in school.
For younger kids who are learning to read or write, parents should make educational lessons extra fun during the summer time. He says museums are a great avenue for sparking interest.
When an enjoyable summertime activity can be integrated with math, science, English, history, it can be a home run — like counting the number of people in a Disneyworld line and multiply by the number of rides in the park to estimate how many people are in the park that day.
Summertime has been a rite of passage for as long as most of us can remember. We can all agree that adults and kids alike burn out when they are constantly programmed. But we need to recognize the current needs of all children. The challenge is to examine this need for downtime alongside the need for defragmented learning.
How we approach the relationship of academic flow and personal decompression will be interesting. Change is always hard.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former heart transplant coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.