Let’s suppose you could dramatically boost the academic achievement of America’s poorest children simply by sending your own kids to school during the summer. Would you?
We already know that disadvantaged kids fall even further behind during the three-month summer break, and that summer school can help them keep up. But we also know that programs aimed exclusively at the poor will inevitably face cuts or elimination, especially during economic downturns.
For an example of this, look no further than Philadelphia, where only 10,000 students will be enrolled in summer programs this year — down from 19,000 last year. The main victims will be poor kids, who typically lose more than two months’ worth of reading skills over the summer, even as their middle-class peers make slight gains. Indeed, some researchers now attribute as much as two-thirds of the so-called “achievement gap” in reading to summer vacation.
So I have a modest proposal: Send everyone to summer school, at least for part of the season. That’s what Americans did for the first century of our history, and it’s time to do so again.
According to a well-worn myth, students in rural 19th-century America stayed home from June through August so they could work on their families’ farms. But in reality, children were more needed in the fields during the spring and fall, when they could help with planting and harvesting, respectively. So they typically had vacation during those seasons and went to school during the summer.
So did most students in America’s burgeoning cities. Breaks were scattered throughout the year, but they were rarely longer than a few weeks. And the total number of school days ranged from 200 to 250, dwarfing the 180-day school year of today.
The living is easy
By the late 19th century, however, most schools had introduced a long summer vacation. Diseases spread more easily during warmer months, educators argued, and children learned less.
One Michigan school official complained that summer was marked by “listlessness, indifference, and want of interest in both scholars and teacher.” Better to send kids home during the summer instead of the spring and fall, when, a Connecticut educator argued, “it is most pleasant for children to attend school.”
Others worried that kids were attending too much school overall. As a Massachusetts educator warned, children “were growing up puny, lank, pallid, emaciated, round-shouldered, and thin-breasted all because they were kept at study too long.” In the summer, children should “go out into God’s free air,” another educator urged, rather than sweltering in unventilated classrooms.
Today, though, summer vacation causes more health problems than it cures. Recent research shows that children who don’t participate in camps or other organized activities — including many of the nation’s poorest kids — gain weight during the summer months, exacerbating the childhood obesity epidemic.
Other children face food scarcity during the season, which has risen with cuts in summer school. According to a study by the Food Research and Action Center, only one in seven students receiving free or discounted school meals in 2009-10 had similar access to meals during the summer.
Benefits for everyone
The solution to these problems would seem obvious: restoring summer school and other programs aimed at disadvantaged youths during the season. But that’s a lousy long-term strategy in America, where social-welfare measures tend to flourish only if they benefit everyone, not just the poor.
Consider Social Security and Medicare: Even as we argue about how to fund and manage these programs, almost nobody suggests doing away with them. After all, they help everybody.
So would a shorter summer vacation. Although middle-class kids — who more commonly have books at home — tend to improve in reading ability during the summer, they also lose math skills, just as poorer children do. With America’s 15-year-olds now ranked 31st worldwide in math, can we afford to let them fall even further behind?
More importantly, how can we tell our kids — and each other — that we really value education when we give them such a long break from it each year? No serious artist, musician, or athlete would consider taking that kind of hiatus from his or her pursuit. But we let our students do so every summer.
The exceptions are the roughly 2.5 million children who now attend school year-round, with shorter vacations spread across the calendar. That reform has been championed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama.
It won’t work, of course, unless we also institute other reforms: smaller class sizes, improved teacher training, and more. But these efforts won’t succeed, either, if our children aren’t in school enough to take full advantage of them.
You probably don’t get three months off in the summer. Your kid shouldn’t, either.
Jonathan Zimmerman is an historian with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. He teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).
This essay was originally published on Philly.com.