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For Our Students' Sake: A Case Against Summer Break

Cody Fenwick: "It’s time to put an end to the two-plus months of academic neglect that we call summer vacation." (woodleywonderworks/flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
Cody Fenwick: "It’s time to put an end to the two-plus months of academic neglect that we call summer vacation." (woodleywonderworks/flickr)

Summer break is a widespread and beloved tradition for schoolchildren across the country. Now that we’re in mid-July, countless students are enjoying vacations, camp and even summer jobs. And it needs to stop. It’s time to put an end to the two-plus months of academic neglect that we call summer vacation.

I was a child once, and I remember how much I loved and longed for my summers. I would not have taken well the suggestion that I go to school year-round. I imagine that this is true of today’s children, too. Which is why the adults in their lives need to embrace this choice for them. Summers spent away from the classroom hurt our children and weaken our education system.

Summers spent away from the classroom hurt our children and weaken our education system.

Part of what led me to this conclusion has been my work at a year-round school. I teach at a residential school for students with significant behavioral and learning challenges. Many of our students regress quickly if their behavior plans are not followed consistently, or if their skill acquisition programs are not frequently run. For this reason, the typical two-and-a-half-month break in our warmest months is out of the question.

But even for students in typical schools, this extended time away takes a significant toll. Just as it would for my students, time not spent expanding skills leads to a diminution of them. Whether it’s the intricacies of pre-calculus or the rudiments of eating appropriately at mealtimes, any work that a student finds challenging requires continuous practice if it is to be built and expanded upon.

In this regard, I have science, if not your children, on my side. There is significant evidence that, not only are students not learning during the summer, they are losing abilities they developed the previous year. This isn’t surprising, given that schools spend much of September re-teaching the last semester.

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It’s often said that summer vacations came about because agrarian families needed the children’s help on the farm during the summer months. In fact, this is a myth. The busiest times on the agrarian calendar are the spring planting and the fall harvest.

It seems the tradition came about for a variety of historical reasons, including the difficulty of studying in sweltering heat. Now that most schools have the capacity to acclimatize their classrooms, however, it’s time to cast a critical eye on whether there are any good reasons left to adhere to this tradition.

One reason often given in defense of summer break is family vacation time. Mine is not a call to eliminate all vacation, especially during the fleeting summer months. The question is whether there is really a need to have upwards of 12 weeks away from school.

Others argue about the importance of our traditions, like summer camp. Sure, but is camp really more valuable than a couple more months of school? Why not incorporate the best-loved elements of summer camp into a more productive academic environment?

There is significant evidence that, not only are students not learning during the summer, they are losing abilities they developed the previous year.

Of course, this line of argument about family vacations and summer camp is moot for the vast numbers of families that can’t afford such luxuries as time off from work for leisure and paying for summertime diversions for their children. The greatest costs of summer learning loss fall upon the poorest families. Indeed, summer break exacerbates inequality by burdening low-income parents with childcare duties, while depriving the children of much-needed educational time.

Another argument holds that our students are overly stressed by school and need summer months to recharge. Whether or not this is so is debatable, but if students really do need a break, summer vacation isn’t the solution. Extending the school year could ease the loads that students carry during a compressed 10 months, with the added advantage of a more even distribution of vacation weeks and extra time to meet curriculum goals.

What about the claim that teachers need July and August off? To that I offer the evidence of my own work experience teaching year-round. My colleagues and I do just fine being in a classroom 12 months a year. Of course, teachers working longer should earn more, but there’s no reason that teaching should require a summer off when many other stressful jobs do not.

It is always easy to find reasons to stay with the status quo. Transitions are difficult, and tradition is a powerful deterrent to change. But it’s time to examine our usual practices and determine where we can improve. There is little to justify what summer vacation truly costs our students, and we owe them more.


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Cody Fenwick Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Cody Fenwick is a writer and graduate student. He blogs on philosophical ethics at The Lives of Animals and contributes to The Life You Can Save blog.

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