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Is Summer Vacation On the Way Out?

On July 2, 2013, in Education, by Scott Cronenweth
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Let’s face it: summer vacation is an American tradition like turkey on Thanksgiving. And messing with traditions that deeply held sparks instant controversy. But American students are falling behind in the global education/skills marketplace—and summer vacation could be part of the problem. Students in many academically competitive countries have three or four weeks more classroom time than American kids.

For most of us, thinking of summer vacation conjures up images of kids enjoying themselves, recuperating from the stress of school and enjoying enriching experiences like summer camp, traveling to cool places and (for older kids) maybe a little test prep—cool stuff that’s arguably as valuable as school.

But is that image realistic? For many, many students the reality is boredom, vast amounts of “screen time” and a year-by-year decrement in academic performance. More and more educators and policy-makers feel that summer vacation as we know it has become outmoded.

Summer vacation grew out of a need in many communities to release kids from school to help with farm chores. In cities, schools often operated on an 11- or 12-month schedule, if classrooms weren’t unbearably hot. Most states ended up standardizing on the 9-month calendar we have today in around 1900—a time when 85% of Americans worked in agriculture (versus about 3% today) and central air conditioning was a pipe dream. Far more families had a parent working at home, too.

The “summer learning loss” that kids experience over a summer vacation devoid of positive stimulation is well documented. For low-income kids in particular, it leads to a widening “achievement gap” that is increasingly recognized as a serious educational, economic and social issue that must somehow be addressed.

But are even economically advantaged American kids falling behind their peers around the world because of summer vacation? And what’s to be done? Adding days to the school calendar in a time of teacher layoffs and shrinking budgets is a non-starter. Further, a whole summer vacation industry is built around the premise that kids have time off from school and are available to travel, recreate and/or work at low-wage jobs.

And meanwhile, the phrase “summer school” smacks of punishment or remedial help—not a good thing to experience by any stretch! It’s also widely criticized as largely unsuccessful in improving academic performance. Good luck “selling summer school” to American kids and parents.

Yet despite the bad rap, more and more school systems are trying an extended school year or modifying their school calendars to shorten the summer break and distribute vacation days across other times of year. A popular scenario is to shorten summer vacation to about five weeks and provide three-week breaks in fall, winter and spring.

The shorter summer break should significantly reduce the achievement gap, while reducing the amount of time that must be spent on reviewing last years’ subjects before moving on. Likewise, teachers can more effectively assign (and hold kids accountable for) target extra practice, tutoring and other supports across the shorter breaks. Hopefully, too, taking breaks throughout the year will prevent the burnout that many students and teachers are feeling come June.

But despite the proven, perceived and potential benefits of revising the school calendar to shorten the summer break and eliminate “summer school,” America may simply not be ready to make the change, as this blowout poll on Debate.org illustrates.

What’s your vote: shorten summer vacation? Or keep things the way they are and find some other way to deal with our educational problems?

Featured image courtesy of Ano Lobb.

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