The War on Summer Vacation

The case against a year-round school year.


Students love summer vacation, but a lot of education reformers hate it. As Brigid Schulte pointed out in The Washington Post a while back,

…and some folks would make it even shorter.

Both President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have called the traditional school day and school year outdated and inadequate for the demands of 21st-century life. Students in countries that routinely outscore the United States on international tests go to school for as many as 230 days each year, 50 more than kids typically attend here. "Go ahead and boo me," Duncan said in April [2009] to Denver students. "I think schools should be open six, seven days a week, eleven, twelve months a year."

Summer vacation is a holdover from the agricultural era, we're told—an anachronism that keeps our kids from competing with…you know. All those foreigners.

Daniel Luzer doesn't buy it. In an interesting piece for the Pacific Standard, he debunks several myths that have grown up around the annual summer break:

* Summer vacation isn't a holdover from the agrarian days after all. Back then, schools had different schedules in different areas. The systematic summer break arrived in the early 20th century, part of the Progressive Era effort to standardize schooling. "If all students had more or less the same schedule," Luzer explains, "it was easier to administer testing and sell standardized education materials like textbooks."

While we're sitting here roasting marshmallows, the Chinese are eating our lunch.

* Opponents of summer vacation like to point to students in Europe and Asia, arguing that their summertime schedules give them a leg up on American kids. (Here's Duncan again: "Our students today are competing against children in India and China. Those students are going to school 25 to 30 percent longer than we are.") But if you measure actual hours of instruction, Luzer notes, the difference disappears: "American students living in some of the most populous states—California, Florida, New York, Texas, and Massachusetts—spend about 900 hours a year in school. India requires 800 to 900 instructional hours per year, depending on the grade. China, too, provides about 900 hours of instruction per year." In Finland, whose students perform famously well, the total is just 608 hours per year—a sign that perhaps there is more to learning than the amount of time spent in a classroom.

A different way to spend the summer months.

* When American schools have shifted to year-round instruction, parents have complained. School may be useful as a babysitter, but too much school gets in the way of vacations and other items on a family schedule. Most public schools that jettison the summer break eventually reinstate it, Luzer writes. When Los Angeles, "which had adopted year-round school in the late '80s, gave schools the option of returning to a traditional schedule, 543 of its 544 schools chose to do so."

I'm not in the habit of defending the products of the Progressive Era, and if the anti-summer campaigners just wanted to move back to the days of different schedules in different places, I might be more sympathetic. If a private or charter school wants to experiment with an alternative system, that's certainly fine with me: Kids and parents who might prefer it should be free to try it out. And of course homeschoolers can adopt whatever vacation plans they like. But our ever-more-monolithic public school system doesn't need to extend its reach into the summer, annexing time that once was free. Arne Duncan's empire is large enough.