I must admit that I’ve become, of late, a proponent of year-round education. This view often makes me unpopular with others, educators and non-educators alike. Summer vacation is part of the status quo in American education – something we’ve always done. Most adults look back at their own summer vacations with fondness – those lazy days of bare feet and river floats, sleeping under the stars and family vacations, licking Popsicles, baseball playing, and sandcastle building. Humans – especially young humans — need time each year to recover and recharge, right?
I decided to look into the history of summer vacation. I had always believed the school calendar was determined, once upon a time, based on the needs of the then largely agrarian society. That isn’t the reality. Actually, prior to the Civil War, schools followed two different calendars; farm children attended in the summer and winter, since most agricultural chores took place in the spring and fall. Urban children attended year round, with a few short holiday breaks. In the mid- to late-1800s, an American philosopher by the name of Horace Mann proposed that forcing children to attend school all year was unhealthy for the mind; too much education could lead to nervous disorders or even insanity. Physicians of the time also believed that hot, crowded classrooms hastened the spread of disease. It became “in vogue” to take the summer off from learning and “rest the brain.” In fact, summer break became a bit elitist – only affluent families could afford to vacation at the shore or send their children to camp. Inner-city kids didn’t receive such a respite.
In a perfect world, summer vacation would be a time filled with visits to the local library and art museums; students would spend time at stimulating and experience-rich summer camps; families would reconnect over historical, educational road trips. The reality, however, is that most students – either due to the reality of living in a world with dual income parents or a single parent – spend the majority of their school break in a childcare program, or as “latch key kid,” their only companion a television set or video game console. For children in poverty, there’s an even greater likelihood that they suffer disproportionally as they lose access to the healthy foods that the school breakfast and lunch program had been providing.
We now know the importance of education and I think it’s safe to believe that no one worries about insanity caused by too much learning! While it’s still true that summer classrooms can be hot, we have the knowledge and the technology to combat that problem.
I know that school-sponsored music and athletic programs regularly meet over the summer. If you ask a marching band director or a football coach why they require summer practice, they say that the students need the constant drill to stay prepared and competitive. Shouldn’t the same be said of academics? Every teacher can speak to the “summer slide” — the loss of learning that occurs when the classroom doors are shut. It isn’t unusual for the entire first month of school to be spent in review of concepts that the students confidently knew before an almost three-month break disrupted their learning. Politicians bemoan the fact that U.S. students are underperforming, but most industrialized nations that statistically outscore the U.S. long ago adopted a longer school calendar. Something to reflect on, for sure.
It’s important to note that this article details only my own personal opinion in regards to year-round schooling. As with any subject, one can find studies that will dispute my beliefs as easily as I found studies to support it. However, public education can’t continue to do what it’s always done simply because that’s what has always been done! Maybe now is the time to boldly go (back) to where we once were.