Why Children Get Summers Off of School

Xing U. asks: Why do kids get the summer off of school?

schoolhouseThe commonly touted explanation for students having summers off from school dates back to a time when the United States’ economy relied heavily on agriculture in order to survive. Students needed to leave school in the summer in order to work on the farm alongside their families. The U.S. is no longer the agrarian nation that it once was, so why do students still get the summer off from school?

Well, that is because the idea that the modern school year is based off of one where students needed to work on the farm during the summer is false.

The majority of farming work occurs in either the spring or fall, so schools in rural parts of the United States during and before the early part of the 19th century typically only held classes during the winter and summer months. This allowed students time off to help plant in the spring and harvest and sell crops in the fall, and then they attended classes when their families had less of a need for them to work. All in all, students in rural schools attended between five and six months of school per year.

On the other hand, schools serving students in urban areas tended to remained open all year with short breaks between academic quarters. But most states did not require students to attend school until the 1870s, so classes often suffered from poor attendance. Some school officials in Brooklyn reported that only about half of their students attended at least six months of classes during 1850.

A number of factors, such as practicality and parent wishes, transformed those two different types of school years into the school year of today. Education reformers encouraged both urban and rural schools to adopt a standardized school year in order to get students across the country on the same school schedule. This would make distributing standardized tests and selling textbooks easier, among other things. But a standardized school year meant that rural and urban school officials needed to compromise on when to hold classes.

At this point it was generally thought that holding classes throughout the year could be detrimental to students’ health, so the schools needed to decide on when to allow students a break from classes. The break would also give teachers time to continue their own education and get ready for the new school year.

Summer became a natural choice for a term away from school. Rural schools tended to be taught by teenage girls in their mid- to late-teens in the summer, leading to a weaker term than in the winter when students learned under older and more experienced schoolmasters. Summer also worked for urban schools due to the lack of air conditioning and the desires of upper class and wealthy families to vacation during those hot months. The added worry of a school that was both hot and crowded potentially spreading a disease also added to the decision to give students summers off from school.

Today, there is a movement among some educators and politicians to restructure the school year so that students attend classes throughout the year. The claim is that getting rid of summer vacation would help students to perform on the same academic level as students from other countries by allowing for more hours of instruction. However, when the numbers are crunched, American students appear to be spending the same amount of time learning per year as students elsewhere in the world, at least in classes. For instance, students from Massachusetts, New York, California, Florida, and Texas all spend 900 hours per year in school. Comparatively, students in India receive between 800 and 900 hours of in-school education per year, while students in China receive 900 hours. Also contrary to the idea that more hours are the answer, one of the highest rated education systems in the world, Finland, only has their students averaging about 608 hours of in-class instruction per year.

As you might have guessed from this, as with just about everything, the issues at hand resists such simplistic explanations and solutions. There is even a strong argument that students in the U.S., on the whole, aren’t nearly as far behind as is often claimed, though of course there’s always vast room for improvement.

For instance, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) assesses the competencies of 15-year-olds in 65 countries and economies, including in math. For 2012, the country/economy with the highest scores in math was Shanghai-China, which was closely followed by Singapore, Hong Kong-China, Chinese Taipei and South Korea. Notably, Canada ranked 13th, Australia 19th, Ireland 20th and the United Kingdom 26th.

The United States’ kids ranked 36th. In fact, according to PISA, the performance of one of the United States’ highest-scoring states, Massachusetts, was so low, it was as if those students had two fewer years of mathematical education than the students in Shanghai-China. PISA also noted that although the U.S. spends more per student than most countries, this doesn’t translate into performance. In 2012, per-student spending in the U.S. was listed at $115,000, while in the Slovak Republic, a country that performed at the same level, they spend only $53,000 per student.

However, the PISA’s results are drastically over simplified.  For instance, as noted in a report by Dr. Martin Carnoy of Stanford and Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, American students actually perform better than the much higher ranked Finland in algebra in general, but worse in fractions.  More importantly, when you normalize the results between the countries, adjusting for the relative poverty of the students taking the PISA tests, the U.S performs significantly better, ranking 6th in reading and 13th in mathematics, a drastic jump in both categories.

Dr. Carnoy and Rothstein further note in their report What Do International Tests Really Show About U.S. Student Performance? that when you divide the kids based on family wealth, the actual gap in performance isn’t so stark between any country, with a not insignificant portion of the ultimate ranking of each nation being based on how many impoverished vs. middle class vs. wealthy students are taking the tests. For reference, about 40% of the schools the PISA used in the U.S.’s sample had more than 50% of their students eligible for free lunch.

So what about switching to year round schooling with extra hours spent in the classroom? Will it help? After all, even if the U.S. isn’t so far behind as is often claimed, that doesn’t mean improvements shouldn’t be sought.

Year round schooling has been tried several times in the last few decades in the U.S., such as efforts in Texas in the 1990s (peaking at about 400 year-round schools) and California in the 1980s (peaking at well over 500 schools on this type of schedule).  The results were underwhelming.  Test scores did not improve, attendance problems were an issue at times (with families still taking vacations, but now with students taking off school at random times), and teachers themselves were burning out (at a faster rate than normal) with little spare time to pursue required continuing education.  Beyond the extra training outside of work hours (along with grading, course planning, corresponding with parents, etc. that also generally doesn’t fall within paid hours), as one educator, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, noted, “Adult humans aren’t built to spend their days with hundreds of children each day. It takes a lot out of an adult to have their antennae up so high, so often, and so consistently.”

Beyond the teachers (and presumably students), parents also tended not to like the switch, due to cutting into family life and making vacations difficult to manage.  In the end, in the late 1980s when California schools that had made the switch were given the option to return to a more traditional “summer off” schedule, 543 of 544 year-round schools chose to do so.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Massachusetts became the first state to require kids to attend school in the United States, passing that law in 1852 thanks to education reformer Horace Mann. Every state in the United States required kids to attend school by 1918.
  • In 16th century England, many school systems required attendance six days a week, from 6 AM to 5 PM, nearly year round. They did get two hours off for lunch, though.
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