By Sari Levy
Summer break isn’t an American invention but it has come to feel as American as apple pie. Only, in the true American spirit, we eat it all in a single sitting. Summer break’s origins (like Spring break’s) are likely in ancient Greece, when it was too hot during the summer to concentrate. Almost every country now has a summer break. A few examples include: Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, and Norway. But all of these countries have something in common. They take one or two months off, rarely three (or almost 3) like we typically do. Usually, June is spent in class and July and August are vacation. This isn’t to say we take too much time off; many other countries take as much or more vacation, but they tend to spread through the year. Us on the other hand? We are bingers.
I recently visited a struggling school in Southwest Denver where the principal, who’d worked his tail off all year to catch kids up to grade level, was grinding his teeth over summer break, making his best pitch to families for summer school. Why? Because his children are likely to lose an entire month of what they learn each year over the summer.
According to an article in US News called “America Gets Summer All Wrong”:
While giving the adults no break, U.S. primary and secondary students get a big one come summer, for no real reason other than tradition. However, study after study has shown that students suffer learning losses during summer vacation, losing about one month’s worth of instruction in what is known as the “summer slide.” The problem is particularly acute for students of low-income families, whose parents can’t afford to send them to summer camps or enrichment programs. And what is lost during the summer is not regained. As a study by the RAND Corporation put it, “most disturbing is that summer learning loss is cumulative; over time, the difference between the summer learning rates of low-income and higher-income students contributes substantially to the achievement gap.”
As important as summer school must be to retain and increase learning, I felt for the kids being asked to participate. In 1995 I had to go to summer school to make up a PE credit I’d accidentally missed, and there was nothing appealing about showing up at school in July to take notes on the rules of badminton while my friends slept in.
So why am I so gung-ho on year-round (or summer) school now? Actually, I’m not. I think kids and teachers need breaks. But I think we should consider looking at some other examples of school term configurations. There are a quarters (Denmark), trimesters (Australia), different week configurations (France), and so on.
I don’t know what the ideal schedule is, but I’m also not convinced we should stick with ours just because that’s how it’s been done since around the turn of the century. Here are 4 reasons why we should consider a change:
#1: Lost learning. There’s no evidence that getting rid of or shortening summer break is going to solve any of our education problems or boost scores much. But it may help at least a little, particularly for poor students.
#2: The expense of summer. Right now, many parents scramble to find childcare, summer camps, summer schools, and activities to entertain their kids all summer. This can cost a small fortune, and not all parents have the time, money, and energy to schedule three months of activities. If we had a shorter summer break, or a different system, perhaps it could ease the burden on parents.
#3 We have A/C! I mean, it’s been invented, not that all schools have it. But, they could. We’d just have to pay for it.
#4 Shorter breaks are nice. Summer break can actually drag on too long for some kids, and the boredom sets in. More frequent short breaks would break up the tedium of the school year a little more for students and teachers.
I’m not suggesting we get rid of summer or even have more days of school (thought that’s a separate debate), just that we stop binging on vacation and look at how we might spread it out a little. Cut the pie a little differently, eat it in smaller servings, and it’s likely to be more satisfying.