A Teacher's Case Against Summer Vacation
With so many huge education-reform ideas under discussion, why isn't altering summer vacation on the table?
I often feel as if I’m teaching in an age of uncertainty. Schools open and close in my urban district, bureaucracies reshuffle ad infinitum, and every few months this year I've gotten new information about how I’ll be evaluated this June. Yet one thing has stayed conspicuously out of the conversation—altering the long-held tradition of summer vacation.
The data around summer learning loss are clear. Students, especially low-income students without access to enriching activities stand to lose meaningful knowledge and skills in the eight weeks each year that they’re away from instruction. Given how popular it is to claim to be data driven, why aren't more states acting on this data? Equally in vogue is decrying how an industrial model of schools isn't fit to produce 21st century thinkers for a globalized economy. Yet the status quo on summer vacation don’t match up to either data-driven decision-making or the urge to bring our system in line with its global competitors.
Options for summer vacation abound, and many of the countries cited as high academic performers have significantly shorter summer vacations than the standard 9-10 weeks in the United States. In Germany, summer vacation is six weeks long, with 2-3 week breaks spread throughout the year. Australia, similarly, has two six week breaks, and two two-week breaks. Singapore’s breaks consist of a week in March, the month of June, a week in September, and seven weeks between November and January.
To be clear, I’m not necessarily arguing for more school time. Research suggests that the number of days doesn't correlate with better student outcomes. Rather, I think that shorter 2-4 week breaks, spread throughout the year, would give students a balance of time to rest, reflect, and experience enriching activities without the potential harm of undoing the work of the rest of the school year.
So why do we remain in love with a 10-week hiatus from instruction? Is it too big of a logistical nightmare to shorten the summer break? Are the travel and summer camp lobbies (yes, there is a summer camp lobby) too powerful to be messed with? Do we worry about kids sweltering in schools without air conditioning? These reasons partly explain it, but I would offer three more.
The first is our cultural attachment to summer vacation. In a democracy, data and global competition can influence policy, but emotion will determine what’s in voters’ hearts, and perhaps adult nostalgia is a big factor here.
Secondly, I think that changing summer vacation may just be too simple of an answer. Complicated solutions are popular. You essentially have to have a PhD to understand the math behind value-added models for teacher evaluation, while the makers of the new standardized tests praise their complexity to justify their multi-million dollar government contracts.
Third, I think that we have chosen to embrace policies that put the hardest work of improving outcomes mostly on the adults working in schools, rather than on the students and families that are the greater proportion of school communities. On one hand, this makes sense. Higher standards and more accountability for teachers and school leaders is an important part of the solution. On the other hand, it’s the easy way out to make teachers the ones who disproportionately feel the brunt of education policy changes. Asking ordinary families to make substantial changes is a much tougher sell.
The Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition stood a good chance of upending the educational status quo. Teacher tenure, evaluation, and school standards, once seemingly set in stone, have been challenged in surprising ways over the past five years. But the federal government did this by essentially picking the policies that they felt would benefit America’s schools the most, then rewarded districts based on their promises to implement the pre-approved reforms. In education policy, the federal government clearly wanted to set the tone and establish which reforms would dominate the conversation.
With summer vacation left out of the mix of RTT reforms, even pundits and bloggers have been largely silent on the topic in recent years. Changing the school calendar is one of many potential reforms that could have big positive impacts for our students. However, our conversation about solutions has been limited, not expanded by the way RTT attaches dollars to specific changes.
When I ask my students to solve problems in class, I want them to be relentless, resourceful, creative, and rational. I welcome their attempts to bring all reasonable solutions to the table when they're attacking problems. I think by starting a conversation around summer vacation, our national dialogue can model these traits for our children.