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Summertime and the Schooling is Easy

by | Jun 26, 2024 | Deep-ish Dive | 0 comments

I am coming in hot today. (No pun intended.)

With the high school year wrapping up with Exam Review this week, and the euphoria of summer about to set in, I must confess that I think school should run year-round.

I understand this is a wild position to take, especially someone who works and teaches in school and whose life is dictated by the academic calendar.

Don’t all teachers want their summers off? How could I betray my peers by advocating calendar reform?

First, a word about the status quo. Why we have the current set-up of school in the fall, winter and spring and NO summer has NOTHING TO DO WITH FARMING.

So set aside those bucolic images of kids out in the fields, helping maw and paw with the tilling. Summers are hot. Nothing happens in the fields during summer.

For this reason, when schooling became universal in the 19th century, farm kids actually went to school in the hottest and coldest months. They helped out their families in spring and fall when crops actually needed to be planted and harvested. Meanwhile, in the cities, kids went to school ALL YEAR LONG. For example, in 1842, for Detroit’s academic year lasted 260 days. For comparison, Ontario Regulation 304 requires that there be a minimum of 194 school days between 1 September and 30 June, including a maximum of ten examination days for secondary schools and a maximum of seven Professional Activity (PA) days. Kids today have it good!

So why the change? As cities grew denser with brick and concrete construction, they grew hotter. (This is known as the “urban heat island effect.”) And families that could afford it began to head out in to the countryside to beat the heat, leaving classrooms half-filled in the hot months. This situation was not sustainable. But who would give first, vacationing parents or school authorities? The answer: local legislators. They stepped in, arguing that kids should get summers off anyway. This argument resonated, especially in light of the activism of other social movements like labour unions who were advocating for the eight-hour workday and vacation time.

So by the turn of the century, urban districts cut about 60 schooldays from the hot months and rural schools soon followed.

But here’s why having summers off is bad.

First, “summer learning loss.” Extensive studies on learning going back to 1906 have demonstrated that, on average, students’ achievement scores declined over summer vacation by one month’s worth of school-year learning. Declines were sharper for math than for reading, and the extent of loss was larger at higher grade levels. More critically, income-based reading gaps grew over the summer, meaning middle class students tended to show improvement in reading skills while lower-income students tended to experience loss.

Second, in most families today, the adult(s) are working all year-round. Unless the kids are sent off to day camp or sleep-away camp, supervision is a persistent summer challenge.

Third, having school all year round doesn’t mean that kids will be in school 250+ days a year. It just means that the 194 days will be distributed differently.  Imagine kids getting three weeks off every three months, instead of the usual time off plus 8 weeks all at once.

Fourth, in many areas, schools also serve as hubs for health care and other services.  This could continue without interruption. 

Fifth, by having more frequent breaks throughout the year, teachers would potentially burn out less.

Now I know the arguments to the contrary. We’ve always done it like this! You’re depriving kids of needed time off! What about summer camp? What about Israel trips? What about summer jobs? What about schools that don’t have proper climate control?

These are all valid concerns – except the first and second one…

Shifting to a year-round schedule would have a lot of up-front costs. Summer camps would have to transition their facilities so they could host kids for fall and winter camp. Israel trips could run in winter and spring when there is no threat of khamsin.  And, if governments agree, schools would finally get a needed boost in infrastructure spending to bring their sometimes-century-old buildings into the 21st century.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

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