As we near the end of the school year I was prompted, whilst listening to NPR on the way to work, to compose a rant about the American obsession with not letting go of the old agrarian school calendar and the ludicrously lengthy summer vacation.
As someone who comes from a different educational culture I have always found the extended break to be problematic. In the UK we are used to having a schedule of six-weeks at school followed by a week or two off school, with a longer 5-6 week break covering the end of July through to early September. This allows kids to “let off steam” throughout the year.
In the US system I have struggled with my children having to continue through the school year with very few breaks* so that they can all be stacked up in the summer. This relentless routine doesn’t seem to allow them any respite time during the year and the summer is a lengthy period which, I am convinced, serves as an opportunity to forget what has been learned.
However, in researching what I considered to be an obsession with a throwback to an agrarian lifestyle, I found that my preconceptions and acceptance of this generally held belief are incorrect. It is oft quoted that we have the whole summer off because of the historical need for children to help on the farms during the times of harvest, however this is apparently not the case. For example, logically the busiest times of the year are the Spring (for crop planting) and the Fall (for harvesting) so letting students out of school during the height of growing season doesn’t really make a lot of sense from a labor-source perspective. In fact, at one point older rural American school systems used to take the students from school during these times and send them back to school during the summer! It is a touch ironic that one reason quoted for the long summer vacation is actually due to increasing American urbanization during the late 19th century and early 20th century rather than the rural lifestyle – the direct opposite of our well-held belief!
Hot summers and lack of air-conditioning made the new cities uncomfortable to remain in and therefore the more prosperous wanted to retreat to the coast or country to escape this situation. Similarly, the urban schools were just too hot for the students to concentrate on their lessons.
There does seem to be more discourse on this subject recently, although a search on the web indicates it has certainly been discussed for decades and, like anything that impacts our “tradition” there will always be staunch supporters to counter any thoughts of reform.
All this being said of course, I still think that US school year needs to be altered so that the students get more, shorter breaks that allow them to recoup their energy and mental faculties. But then, my children are going to be out of the school system in the blink of an eye, so I guess I’ll just grit my teeth for a few more years…
* Our Spring Break is now just 3 days in our school district and Christmas break starts on Dec 23rd
A big factor is simply that kids look out the window during the summer and wish they could be outside. That’s less true…. well for me anyway…. during the winter.
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Thank you for your comment, Brian. It may be a big factor for kids wanting a longer summer but that doesn’t explain why we still insist on this approach to the school year in 21st century America. My kids are burned out during the year due to the lack of breaks. The first long haul is from school start in August until 2 days at Thanksgiving and then the next one is a whole week at Christmas. Spring break this year was 3 days, which resulted in several parents excusing their kids from school so that they could get a break. The only other respite we have is during the Pennsylvania snowfall which may, if we’re lucky, cause the odd “snow day” when the buses cannot run safely. However, as our school district has a pathological hatred of allowing these days off since it may “delay the summer vacation” they are hard won.
Couple this lack of periodic breaks with the ridiculously early school start of 07:30 (at least where I am) when most teenagers are half-asleep and I’m amazed the students learn anything.
However, to get back on point, the very cynical part of me would also argue the long summer is ingrained because it allows many teachers and allied professionals to have summer jobs… (I’m bound to take some hits for that one…)