Summer Brain Drain

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]

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. The Khan Academy might be a potential part of a solution. I was reading about this recently, and it seems like a great resource. It’s free, and is especially targeted towards disadvantaged children (and adults) and uses the “assessment/promotion approach” you mentioned, at least it seems to from what I gathered reading about it. The creator, Salman Khan, has several interviews on Youtube where he talks about it more.

  2. I’m keeping an eye on Khan’s developments. There is a lot of potential there, particularly for summer school or gap learning.

  3. I agree, Will. With one big difference–all remedial remedies for summer brain drain would concentrate on one subject and one subject only. Math. Math, math, math, math. Math needs to reign supreme in all schools. When you get math, you get everything. It provides the solid and logical foundation from which all knowledge comes from. All other subjects can be dealt with during the regular school year.

    I suppose the study of an ongoing foreign language could also be added just as well.

  4. The school year hasn’t changed much since the days where farmers were a larger fraction of the population. Then, the late summer break was needed for children to participate in harvest work. The winter break was an artifact of bad roads and holidays.

    Consider how early the school day begins. It hasn’t changed in over a century. Why isn’t the school day congruent with the work day, thereby making pickup and dropoff more convenient for parents?

    I don’t want to see kids turned into little Bitzers or the teachers into Gradgrinds. If summer vacations have turned into kids sitting indoors in the air conditioning and watching television, we’ve distorted and attenuate every child’s natural urge to play and socialize. Too much of this Catching Up business is so much unpleasant roping of children together, independently of their actual level of competency and leading them up the slopes of some Everest. Halfway up, a few are already dead, being dragged along by several others who are bored to death, impeded from any faster progress by the “flunk”-ers. A thoroughly unpleasant and unnecessary experience for all involved: children should be challenged with material appropriate to their level of mastery.

    In Germany, well, this was true back when I was in Kitzingen, school went for half a day. The kids went to the Jugendhaus, a big old converted mansion in the heart of town for the afternoon. There they could play chess, do their homework, participate in activities until their parents returned home. The town, not the school, organized the sports activities and teams. I don’t hold the German model up as some paradigm of excellence but it does as much or more in half a day as we do with the whole school day. Were I in charge of the school day, it would start later, with about half the day, especially for younger children, reserved for playing and other less-structured activities.

    Brain drain? I think not. We should be learning how to learn, continuing to learn all our lives. Stuffing a child full of facts will not inspire him to learn, especially when all those facts are in books. Children from their earliest years are explorers and experimenters. Most of what passes for education beats every curious instinct out of them, teaching them they’re not good at anything.

    • School start-times vary from place to place. It’s all at the same time where I am now, but when I grew up it ranged from 6am (for high school) to 9am (for junior high) so that everything could work on fewer busses.

      As for the meat of your comment, I have mixed feelings about Open vs Closed environments. I think that there is something to be said for the former for a lot of kids, but I think a lot of kids need the latter.

  5. Don’t worry, knowing how school boards work, somehow it’d be up to the teachers to bring in fans when the AC kicked the bucket.

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