The Arizona Desert Lamp

Against Summer Vacation

Posted in Education Policy by Evan Lisull on 22 May 2009

Summer VacationThis isn’t the most popular case to be making right about now, when most everyone is reading this poolside on their Blackberries. But in a discussion on inequality in education, blogging UA professor Lane Kentworthy spells out why the extended break is such bad policy:

Second, we have evidence from the natural experiment that is summer vacation. During those three months out of school, the cognitive skills of children in lower socioeconomic status (SES) households tend to stall or actually regress. Kids in high-SES households fare much better during the summer, as they’re more likely to spend it engaged in stimulating activities. In his book Intelligence and How to Get It, cognitive psychologist Richard Nisbett concludes that “much, if not most, of the gap in academic achievement between lower- and higher-SES children, in fact, is due to the greater summer slump for lower-SES children” (p. 40).

This adds a more serious side to what is already accepted anecdotal fact of summer vacation relapse. And while the widening of the gap is important, there’s also an overall loss in knowledge – kids rich and poor spend the first three weeks or so refreshing everything that they forgot over break. Add that to the last couple of weeks before break, which is mostly an exercise in large-scale babysitting, and you have solid month of school time wasted.

This extended summer vacation, unlike some other policies, is not an anachronism of our agrarian past, but rather the brainchild of reformer Horace Mann:

In the 1840s, however, educational reformers like Horace Mann moved to merge the two calendars out of concern that rural schooling was insufficient and–invoking then current medical theory–that overstimulating young minds could lead to nervous disorders or insanity. Summer emerged as the obvious time for a break: it offered a respite for teachers, meshed with the agrarian calendar and alleviated physicians’ concerns that packing students into sweltering classrooms would promote the spread of disease.

Mann is right to suggest that overstimulation of the mind is an issue, but this is akin to those alcoholics who reel from stone-cold sobriety one week to double-fisting the next. Rather than such disparate zones of engagement and non-engagement, schools (and the poor kids’ minds) would be better off extending the school year further into the summer, while interspersing more frequent extended weekends and week-long breaks. (Although you don’t have to entirely destroy summer to make this work; the month of July, for instance, can be off-limits.) This also makes life easier for parents, who don’t get similarly extended breaks (yet*) and thus must spend three months finding a way to keep an eye on the kid. To get back to the inequality issues, this involves sending kids off to camp for extended periods of time, an option that involves spending a good deal of money.

This is less of an issue on the collegiate level, with the wide variety of internship options and the lack of stigma on taking summer classes. But even a few more extended weekends – and for the UA, a decent thanksgiving break – would go a long way.

* – I’d be remiss if I didn’t quote the linked-to Vandy Right piece, quoting the Politico:

Rep. Alan Grayson was standing in the middle of Disney World when it hit him: What Americans really need is a week of paid vacation.

If this where Congress’ great ideas come from, it’s no wonder that our legislative branch is well on its way to Cleon and Cataline. Some future ledes from the Politico:

“Tommy Bruce was moshing at Coachella when it hit him: What Arizona really needs is a huge concert.”

“Barney Frank was lighting up a bong when it hit him (Ed. – ha!): What Americans really need is legalized marijuana.”

“Bill Clinton was screwing Monica Lewinsky when it hit him (Ed. – HA!): What Americans really need is a defense of heterosexual marriage.”

“Dick Cheney was lashing a suspect’s back with a cat-o-nine-tails when it hit him: What the White House really needs is some legal justification for their politicies.”

Image courtesy of Flickr user Criss!


3 Responses

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  1. Mike Warren said, on 22 May 2009 at 8:13 am

    Great potential Politico ledes!

    I’m in favor of abolishing summer vacation for K-12 and instead going with year-round school and more breaks in between. My public school system has been moving in that direction for some time. Great points throughout.

    Thanks also for the link.

  2. A. Hill said, on 22 May 2009 at 6:41 pm

    Rep. Alan Grayson was standing in the middle of Disney World when it hit him: What Americans really need is a week of paid vacation.

    something about this sentence makes me want to burn congress to the ground.

  3. Laura Donovan said, on 22 May 2009 at 8:46 pm

    Summer vacation is important for children. They can go to summer camps and really take advantage of the outdoors. I think there is more to learning than the classroom can provide. Maybe that’s just my view, but it’s definitely important for children to be outside and take a break from academics for a while.

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