Up until about the eighth grade, the first semester ended about two weeks after we returned from Christmas vacation. Then, some law was passed that allowed school to begin earlier in the year. A few days off and inservice days were shifted to the Spring, and the semesters were separated by winter break. Shortly after I graduated high school, there were grumblings that the school year was starting too soon. The local theme parks and other summer-fun places were complaining that they were left with only a little more than a couple months of business. So they tried to pass another law forcing districts to wait until September to start school. Education experts, in turn, argued that starting the semester earlier in the year was problematic because it would require splitting up the first semester again, which was problematic because of the brain drain that occurs over those two or so weeks.
As I read about this debate, I scratched my head. First, if they forget it over two weeks, then they never really learned it. Second, though, if we’re worried about what happens over two weeks, what about the two to three months of summer?! One of the frustrations for K-12 for me was that how it seemed that half of each year was spent reminding us of what we had learned over the previous year and forgotten over the summer (except that I didn’t forget, which made it even more frustrating). I was reminded of this when I read the following snipit from Reihan Salam’s piece on education:
Alan Krueger, the Princeton economist President Obama tapped to serve as his chief economic adviser, co-authored an important paper with Molly Fifer in 2006 on summer learning loss. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are at a big skills disadvantage in early grades, but that gap grows with each passing year. One reason is that while middle-class kids take part in enriching activities during the summer, ranging from camp to stimulating conversations with educated parents, poor kids are far less likely to do so. With that in mind, Krueger and Fifer called for a program of summer opportunity scholarships paying for enrichment programs during long vacations. It’s an excellent idea that should be pursued.
But what we really need is a cultural shift in which all of us take more responsibility for our education. We are not empty vessels into which credentialed professionals ladle knowledge. Rather, we are a special kind of animal uniquely good at learning through imitation and practice. Somehow we need to find better ways to capitalize on this fact — inside school walls and outside as well.
Or, of course, we could eliminate and/or divide out the “long vacations.”
There are a few arguments against this one. The theme park lobby being one of them. They like having things condensed in a way that allows them to concentrate all of their business over a short period of time (though, apparently, there is such a thing as “too short”). And a lot of leisure activities are season-specific (beaches, for instance). The fall and spring, where at least a few weeks of vacation would be harbored, can be too cold for outdoor swimming (where applicable) but too warm for playing in the snow (where applicable).
The second argument is that a lot of schools up north are not cut out for summers. They have non-existent or insufficient air conditioning. Which strikes me as insane no matter where you live. I hear this in particular about the northeast and that just strikes me as bizarre. They brag about how much money they spend on schools, but don’t shell out for adequate air conditioning systems?
The last argument is that summer school is necessary for some kids to get caught up.
In any event, I am unmoved by these arguments when you consider the degree of brain-drain that does occur over the summer. The third is the only really problematic one, to me. For the students that fall behind, I think the solution to that is with a quarter system where some classes over some quarters are repeated. While useful for shorthand, I think that overall the tendency to delineate too much by “grade level” is problematic. I would prefer more of an assessment/promotion approach on a class-by-class basis. So if we did go to a year-around system, I would support other changes occurring at the same time. Up to and including allowing families to pull their kids out of school for family trips, in the event that the months-off are staggered between the school. Staggering months-off could also go a ways towards alleviating the Disneyland problem.
As for the air conditioner problem, buck up and pay for it.
[Cross-posted on Hit Coffee]