Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Don’t Bewail Summer Vacation for Students, Rethink It

We need alternatives to the one-size-fits-all model
By Rick Hess — June 05, 2023 2 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The school year is about to end, beginning summer vacation. As always, this will surface the annual spate of commentary on the “problem with summer vacation.” The idea is that students need to spend more time in school, whether via a longer school year, year-round schooling, or something else. There’s some logic to such appeals but only when carefully calibrated.

Calls for a change typically start with proponents noting that the American school calendar is an anachronism geared for the needs of 19th-century farmers—rather than 21st-century learners.

They’ve got their history half right.

The school calendar is an anachronism. But that’s not because it was designed for farmers, who tend to be busiest in the spring and fall (during planting and harvesting season) when school is in session. Indeed, in many 19th-century rural communities, schooling was haphazard, with schools open just three to six months a year.

Instead, the adoption of the summer break was driven by experts in the late 1800s. Health authorities regarded sweltering cities, with raw sewage running in the gutters (back before air conditioning or modern plumbing), as breeding grounds for disease. The intent was to enable families to get children out of crowded, dirty cities in the summer heat while addressing concerns that too much schooling would overtax students.

Over time, public hygiene evolved, but the school calendar did not. A one-size-fits-all summer break became entrenched in a nation where students and families come in many sizes and with many different needs. As I suggest in The Great School Rethink, our approach should be to rethink summer in response to those diverse needs—rather than to swap out our current one-size-fits-all model for a new one.

Summer vacations work well for many families, especially those with adequate child care, in which the parents have flexible jobs, or those of means. These families may find much value in a summer break that allows for camps, travel, and family time. And that’s a good thing. Attacks on summer vacation which dismiss that fact are misguided and tone-deaf.

But there are also many families for whom the traditional summer is a poor fit, especially that lack resources or child care, have no parent at home during the day, or live in chaotic or unsafe neighborhoods. For these families, summer can be a time when kids are adrift, vulnerable, and restless.

These differences can yield “summer learning loss,” as more affluent students have more access to high-quality camps and cool vacations than their peers. All of this means that summer schooling—if it’s active, invigorating, and professional—can be a practical and appealing solution for many families. Add in the concern that, regardless of familial circumstances, too many unattended kids will otherwise spend long days gaming, watching videos, or cruising questionable websites, and it’s easy to understand why many parents want access to structured, supervised summer activities.

An anachronistic calendar shaped by 19th-century hygiene concerns may not be a particularly good fit for many students, families, and communities today. Fair enough. That argues for rethinking what we’re doing, providing more options, and reshaping yesterday’s one-size-fits-all model into one that can better meet a diversity of student needs and family situations.

But none of this should serve as an excuse to box a single child up for additional weeks of uninspired schoolwork. No one should imagine that locking kids in chaotic classrooms or lifeless schools during bright summer days is doing them any favors.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion I Invited My Students to Be the Principal for a Day. Here’s What I Learned
When I felt myself slipping into a springtime slump, this simple activity reminded me of my “why” as an educator.
S. Kambar Khoshaba
4 min read
052024 OPINION Khoshaba PRINCIPAL end the year with positivity
E+/Getty + Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
School & District Management The Complicated Fight Over Four-Day School Weeks
Missouri lawmakers want to encourage large districts to maintain five-day weeks—even as four-day weeks grow more popular.
7 min read
Calendar 4 day week
iStock/Getty
School & District Management From Our Research Center Principal Salaries: The Gap Between Expectation and Reality
Exclusive survey data indicate a gap between the expectations and the realities of principal pay.
4 min read
A Black woman is standing on a ladder and looking into the distance with binoculars, in the background is an ascending arrow.
iStock/Getty
School & District Management Schools Successfully Fighting Chronic Absenteeism Have This in Common
A White House summit homed in on chronic absenteeism and strategies to reduce it.
6 min read
An empty elementary school classroom is seen on Aug. 17, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York. Nationwide, students have been absent at record rates since schools reopened after COVID-forced closures. More than a quarter of students missed at least 10% of the 2021-22 school year.
An empty elementary school classroom is seen on Aug. 17, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York. A White House summit on May 15, 2024, brought attention to elevated chronic absenteeism and strategies districts have used to fight it.
Brittainy Newman/AP