Summer Vacation?

Much has been said about the increasing achievement gaps between United States students and international students, particularly in areas like mathematics. For the last several years, we have continued to lag behind our peers, and of course America in all its glory wonders why? Naturally fingers have pointed every which way, and have led to some fairly disastrous policy in my opinion (see: No Child Left Behind). However, the latest fall-guy might be one of my most beloved: Summer Vacation.

The problem however, is certainly a substantial one. The latest results have us lagging far behind countries which simply don’t have the same sort of resources to draw upon as we do. Common thought seems to dictate that with an adjustment of policy, combined with our economic resources, that there is absolutely no reason we shouldn’t be #1. There is a litany of different policies that have been proposed along this train of thought. Conor Clarke of the Atlantic has written several times in support of a policy that would essentially abolish summer vacation in favor of partially compensating kids by having longer more frequent vacations throughout the year. The crux of the argument being that most of the traditional reasons for it (Agrarian calendar) are things of the past, and 3 months without learning contributes to a significant loss in aptitude. That problem is then exacerbated by living in a  low-income household where people don’t have access to enriching summer activities.

Admittedly, I’m sure that getting rid of what often consists of 3 months of with no structure will inevitably make kids stronger math students… that much is not in doubt for me. If it’s done solely through an expansion of the educational system, it’s also going to cause problems. Not only are education budgets already strained without having to do things like run the A/C all summer, hire more teachers, more janitors, etc. But many of these teachers use the summer to do things like keep up on state licensing requirements by taking classes, and become further certified to advance their careers. Forcing teachers to do these things by taking night classes rather than simply doing it during the summer will invariably make their life harder, which will probably reflect in their work at school. More alarmingly, it will also serve to deter people from entering the teaching profession at all. Many people are satisfied with the generally sub-par pay that teachers receive in part because they know that they will have summers off and some free time. If you tell someone that they’re going to have to work hours comparable to a first year junior associate at a major firm, and then come home with 35-40k to show for it…. They’re not going to be happy.

Furthermore, I believe that its possible people are simply looking in the wrong place for a solution to this problem.  The lackadaisical summer shouldn’t been as a failure of schooling necessarily. It is a failure of first parenting and secondly community resources. There are thousands of families with access to camps, and all sorts of summer enrichment activities for their kids, yet they choose to let them languish in front of a television for long periods of time. I know this, because I had access to many of these camps and summer learning opportunities, yet most of my time was probably spent watching Ren & Stimpy during my early summers. Understandably, many kids don’t have the financial resources  to go to camps, or fancy extracurricular programs. This is why more money should be invested in programs like Boys & Girls Clubs of America, or the YMCAs of the world. These places provide a vital place for kids to go, and interact with their peers.  These facilities not only often have learning on the agenda, but other things that are sorely lacking within the American lifestyle such as physical activity. After all, if we just keep kids in school longer, and are already cutting corners to get rid of expensive classes like P/E, isn’t that only going to exacerbate America’s obesity problem?

Of course, this isn’t even considering the value of unstructured summer vacation. A lot of those lackadaisical summers I spent meandering around my hometown with my friends were also my most enjoyable. The experiences I had, I wouldn’t trade for the world, and I think many people probably look back on the summers of their youth in a similar fashion. If the goal of school is to prepare kids to have a successful and happy life, should we be willing to make some sort of trade off for those unquantifiable memories that are achieved during those summers?

If any proposal along these lines were to pass, I personally think we should have more school days but shorter ones. While countries like Japan may spend far more days of the calendar year in school, they actually spend fewer total hours than we do in the classroom. I fear that if we both increase the # of days and hours per day spent in the classroom, kids will simply tune out school even more than they do now, and drop-out rates may even increase. If we make days in school a bit shorter, we might stop the summer learning backslide, as well as allow some time for kids to still indulge in the creative unstructured bursts that make summertime so great. Although, at the same time, that’s going to lead to the same questions we confront now, “What should the kids do for those hours that they are out of school while the parents are at work? Are they going to get into more trouble?” Well, not if we sensibly stop looking at school as the only solution. It can’t be a band-aid for all of our kids’ problems. That kind of improvement across the board is going to take more than just a different school policy, its going to take a substantial investment in the communities of America. People are going to have to stand up and take responsibility for their kids, rather than letting media babysit them, and they’re going to have to stop looking for the Department of Education to solve all their problems.