The question comes up every June as students clean out their lockers: Should public schools continue to give kids the summer off?
Many experts depict summer recess as a vestige of a bygone era when most Americans lived on farms. Inconveniently, their complaint ignores a few facts. First, farms are busy places, even in months that aren’t July and August, like spring planting and autumn harvest.
Second, it’s been a hundred years since most Americans lived in the country, let alone on farms, and summer vacation remained a positive aspect of American life even after most of us had moved to suburbs and cities and while we were becoming a superpower.
Third, our current two-month summer recess became an institution largely at the insistence of a growing urban middle class that demanded a summer vacation.
Critics also point to the knowledge kids lose when school isn’t in session and the time it takes each September to re-teach what they’ve forgotten. Except whether you’re mastering the multiplication tables or a vocational skill, taking a break, reviewing, and then building on that renewed foundation is how we learn almost everything.
Part of the process
While most adults don’t get two months to regroup, teachers don’t review mostly because of summer vacation. We review because that’s how kids acquire and practice knowledge and skill. And we don’t limit review to September. I review all year long.
For example, I teach capital letters to all my students. In sixth grade, we spend a few weeks. By eighth grade, we spend a few days. Summer vacation isn’t why I need to teach punctuation every year. If we stopped giving kids July and August off, I’d still have to teach it every so often. And I’d still repeat much of what I’d already said, faster with each repetition, the way I do now.
Some critics fold their objections into a call for longer school days throughout the year. They correctly note that U.S. students spend fewer annual hours in school than students in some other developed nations, and attribute our disappointing international test results to our shorter days and school year.
For example, in 2003, Japanese students averaged 926 hours in a “school-based education program,” while American students spent 799. Japan placed fourth in an international math assessment, while we placed 24th. Finland, on the other hand, spent 861 hours and placed first, while Italy spent more time than we did and lagged behind us.
These statistics deserve skepticism, but two things are true. How much time you spend on learning matters, but what you do with that time matters more. That means what teachers do with the time, as well as what students do with it, and after it when they’re home.
Using the time
Critics need to examine how we use the time we already have before they demand more. Proposals for longer days include everything from remedial instruction, which used to be known as staying after school for extra help, to chess and drama clubs, which used to be known as after-school chess and drama clubs.
Proponents also envision using the extra time to develop vaguer “nontraditional skills” like leadership and resiliency. Their envisioned “seamless learning experience” includes “a web of community services” as well as experience in “relevant real-world settings,” formerly known as after-school jobs.
At the same time experts are recommending longer school hours, they’re also complaining that American children lack sufficient play time. They view that deficiency as a “troubling health and school issue” and demand longer recesses during the school day. In other words, instead of sending kids home to play after school, let’s make the day longer so we can give kids more time to play before they go home. How nuts are we?
If we’re serious about school time, we can address truancy. Roughly 10 percent of first-graders nationwide are chronically absent, and the percentage rises dramatically in districts “serving poor children,” in some districts ranging above 50 percent. Those children’s scores predictably depress overall school averages, and remediating those students cuts into teachers’ class time with students who don’t miss school. Besides, expecting kids who already don’t attend school to attend longer school days and years doesn’t sound like a solution.
Address the issues
We can address the minutes and hours teachers are compelled to spend on classroom management, and how much instruction their students lose at the hands of a disruptive few because perverse regulations, the threat of litigation, and pipe-dream behavior theories continue to rule in our schools.
We can address how much time schools divert to social services. We can address how vague, nonacademic objectives have supplanted academic content. All this costs more than a summer every year.
Finally, we can understand that giving children the summer away from school isn’t a waste of their time. Unless we’re saying that being home is a waste of their time.
If that’s the case, then we’ve got a more serious problem than a summer in my classroom can cure.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vt.
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