School's out for summer...but why?
June 20th, 2012
06:15 AM ET

School's out for summer...but why?

By Carl Azuz, CNN

(CNN) The reasons why America’s students enjoy around two months off every summer probably aren’t based on some archaic, farm-based education schedule, as many people believe.

They’re more likely the result of what was happening in American cities.

Flash back to the mid-1800s.  Students in rural communities were needed to help with farm work, to be sure – but not in the summertime.  Spring was the planting season, and fall was the harvesting one; summer might’ve been a great time to study, as it wouldn’t have been interrupted by work involving crops.

But in U.S. cities, where students were taught throughout the calendar year, some of the education experts and doctors of the day believed too much schooling placed a stress on kids.  And there were several factors that made summertime the ideal time for a break.

For one thing, it was hot.  We can just turn down the thermostat today, but imagine sitting in an unventilated, urban schoolhouse without air conditioning or indoor plumbing as the thermometer pushed 100.  Not a comfortable environment for learning.

For another, wealthier families – and some school administrators – took vacations in the summer.  And teachers often used the warmer months as training time.

So organizers of what came to influence our modern school year thought it best to strike summer from the academic calendar and to allow everyone, urban and rural, some time out of class.

But this isn’t to say that today’s summer vacations are good for everyone.  A number of studies have indicated that the summer months can be an educational drain, particularly on poorer students, who may not get the intellectual stimulation over the summer that middle-class students may get in camps, vacations and programs.

Read: Summer 'brain drain' worse for poor kids

The Obama Administration has pushed for longer school days and more of them, arguing that the 180-day calendar is insufficient in making the U.S. more educationally competitive with other countries.

However, Dr. Terry Stoops, director of Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation, says more time in the classroom isn’t necessarily the answer.  “Extending the school calendar without making improvements to the curriculum and teacher quality would simply subject students to additional hours of unproductive instruction,” says Stoops.

A number of studies indicate that year-round school – with short breaks spread throughout the year instead of a long one in the summer – would help prevent summer learning loss in many students.

But there’s a catch:  It costs more.  From summertime energy expenses to potential increases in teacher salaries to the costs of running buses from June through August, the potential price of year-round school may simply be out of reach.

This is a time when the nation’s public school systems are looking to cut costs.  With less money available from states and communities, we’ve seen schools eliminate bus routes, lay off or buy out teachers, and shorten school days and weeks.  So the push for more instructional time at additional cost is exactly the opposite of what many districts are able to provide.

There’s also some pushback from parents, who typically plan vacation and family time over the summer.  And those with younger kids sometimes struggle to find childcare when school breaks are spread out.

So while today’s students may have advantages in technology and organization over their 19th-Century counterparts, it’s likely they’ll continue to share the same benefits – and in some cases, drawbacks – of having summers off.

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Filed under: Carl Azuz • Early childhood education • History • Issues
soundoff (303 Responses)
  1. Erica Jameson

    Summers don't have to be wasted! There are over 12,000 summer camp programs in the United States that are accredited by the American Camping Association, an organization dedicated to helping kids get to camp. These camps range from academic programs, to specialty programs like theater camp, to "traditional" get-outside-and-away-from-technology camps. These programs run the gamut in price, location, age group, and focus, but all foster the same idea: help kids have fun and learn during the summer. The power of friendships, uninterrupted play, creativity, focus, and lifelong skills are all lessons learned at camp. Summer is for fun and family. Let's keep it that way.

    June 20, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  2. John

    I have a Grandson starting in a technical HS in the fall. They have the same amount of school days as the reqular HS, but they manage to teach a tech career in the same four years. Nine days of shop and nine days of academics. They meet all the same state requirements for curriculum and take the same mastery tests. That leads me to believe that time or number of days is not the issue.

    June 20, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  3. educated

    The average American doesn't just work longer hours and more days per year than the other developed countries, they also take the good pay that results and pay fairly low taxes. (Take a look at the marginal tax rates in the scandinavian countries sometime). We are outperforming Europe with our head-start and work ethic right now, but the taxes should go up and be used to fix the education gap. Moderate libertarian here, so don't label me right or left. Everyone in the country can pay some more taxes, not just the rich. Quit wasting your money on big TVs and a new car every 4 years and maybe you'd not be so worried about when social security will become underfunded. Better yet, train the next generation of workers better and hold them to a standard and the whole nation will be more productive.

    Summers off or not, if we don't require more from the kids we are becoming an idiocracy. Your kids like mine should be coming home and doing some reading, flash cards and mental games year-round, as well as taking trips to the museum and zoos in addition to whatever the school system requires. If not, it's not their fault. That lack of structure is evidence their parents are settling to raise the next unskilled laborer. Demand more from them, they will surprise you.

    June 20, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  4. CD

    I know this may come as a shock to all of you who dump your kids in day care as infants and expect others to raise them for you...but we LOVE being with our kids. Summer is a great time for us to be together without the distractions of school and other activities. It is not wasted time at all. In fact, I would be willing to wager that our kids learn more in the 70 or so days of summer than they do in a full year of school. It's amazing how much more excited they are about reading and drawing and exploring things that interest them when they are free of the smothering structure of our school system. The last thing our kids need is more school. What they need is for the schools to get out of their way.

    June 20, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • jodiemo

      Then by all means, homeschool your children!

      June 20, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Summer819

      Those of us who "dump our kids at day care as infants and expect others to raise them"? So what you're saying is you're willing to fund my bank account with extra income so I can afford to stay at home with my kids?!? Gee, thanks.

      Not everyone can afford the luxury to be at home with their children as much as we'd like to be. Many parents try to figure out ways to stay at home with their kids, but it simply doesn't work for a lot of families these days. Think before you speak.

      June 20, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • CH

      It's really hard to listen/have a conversation when the first thing someone says is meant to be offensive. Some of us can't afford to not work, so I have to "dump my kid in daycare" and "expect someone to raise [her] for [me]." I guess that makes me a terrible person to you, but we all do what we have to do. It must be nice to be you and have the freedom to pass judgement on others.

      June 20, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
    • Krissy

      CD – you are so rude! How dare you look down your nose at those that don't have a choice but to leave kids at daycare. Some people have to have an income to live. Your welfare check might afford you the apportunity to stay home with your kids, but I would prefer to make my own money. I take advantage of every moment with my kids... all year round.

      June 21, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  5. dowdotica

    so they can live a little before being enslaved for the next 50+ with a ball and chain around ankles laying golden egs for top 1% so that the top 1% can have the summers off to go float around on yacths and such, be served champagne and caviar. you go out and try to climb a tree when your 70! Or try to take on a triple black diamond mogul run! lololol. i still climb trees but it gets a little harder year after year, bad knees from back when being a kids was life!!!

    June 20, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  6. dmpcfoh

    My 12-year-old daughter was bored the second day after school let out this year. Luckily we had her signed up for a 4 week theater camp, and now she says she dreads the weekend because she doesn't have camp. The point in this case is that if classes were more fun and inviting (like her theater camp) kids might actually enjoy school. I know that there were classes I had that I looked forward too, and others I hated. It's all about good teachers making learning fun and productive.

    June 20, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • thefurious

      Actually, its not only about teachers making school more fun and interesting. That won't fix the school system's problems. Ask a teacher you might know. There are bad teachers, but parents are a HUGE part of the educational environment and growth of their child.

      June 20, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • jodiemo

      We need to –nationwide– start protesting the standardized over-testing of our children and give the power back to teachers so they have the freedom create engaging lessons. The government is sucking the joy out of teaching AND learning.

      June 20, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  7. thefurious

    If anyone ever thinks/thought that their pension would help them retire on top of SS, they are dumb. Retirement is a viable option, even for middle-class incomes. When Americans start to live within their means, our country will pull out of debt and more people will be able to see retirement in their 60's as a reality.

    June 20, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  8. David Petkiewicz

    "With less money available from states and communities, we’ve seen schools eliminate bus routes, lay off or buy out teachers, and shorten school days and weeks." Hey, but at least we have LOTS of money to spend on the military!

    June 20, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  9. Tim

    Have you ever watched..."Are you smarter than a fifth grader?" Maybe we should learn some more meaningful, useful things. I'm a father of seven over thirty years. My children have had some great teachers and not so great ones. Unfortunately the not so great ones are protected..Education is not the end all to be all...Most of the gov't and all large corporations are led by educated idiots. Get my point?

    June 20, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
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