Why We Should Get Rid Of Summer Vacation

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500 child playing mikebaird flickr.png

This piece gets written every year. (I wrote it for the Guardian two years ago.) But since the case for getting rid of the long summer vacation in American schools is pretty solid, and since the vast majority of American students still have a summer vacation, and since I can take pleasure in being a callous childhood joykill, it's probably worth writing again and again and again. So, from this morning's Washington Post:

Both President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have called the traditional school day and school year outdated and inadequate for the demands of 21st-century life.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 to Denver students. "I think schools should be open six, seven days a week, eleven, twelve months a year."

school year by country.png

That's exactly right. Part of the reasoning here, as Duncan suggests, is the need to compete internationally. Most other industrialized nations have longer school years than we do (see the chart to the right), and there is fairly strong evidence that more time in school means higher standardized test scores. The long summer break, moreover, doesn't even pretend to have a rational basis in educational policy. It's a response to (1) inadequate farming schedules; (2) the mid-20th century's lack of air conditioning; (3) the mid-20th century's fear of summertime disease transmission; and (4) the no-doubt timeless desire to mimic the summertime vacation habits of the rich.

That last point is worth lingering over. One issue that doesn't come up enough in discussions of extending the school year is that doing so is also, fundamentally, an issue of economic fairness. If you believe in equality of opportunity, then one of the most important things the state can do is provide some baseline level of education that seeks to alleviate vast differences of class. But, small though it may seem, one of the most profound ways in which class differences express themselves is over the summer vacation.

This is because wealthy parents can afford to given their children all sorts of edifying summer experiences that downscale parents cannot. And this, as researchers at Johns Hopkins have found, leads to backsliding: Educational advancement across classes tends to be fairly even during the school year. But downscale students actually decline in educational achievement over the course of the summer, while upscale students remain relatively stable.

I see that the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions is gearing up to fight this one. But the answer here, unfortunately for them, really is less summertime fun.

UPDATE: In response to a suggestion from one commenter, I wrote a follow-up post on the history and economics of the summer vacation here.
 
Picture of small, frolicking child (with no idea what Arne Duncan has in store for her summer) from Flickr user mikebaird.
 

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Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. More

Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism, an economics blog that was recently published in book form by Simon and Schuster. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. He is also on Twitter.
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