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In Praise of Summer Vacation

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It's that time of year, finally: school's out, for most of us, and we can start thinking about how to use the time wisely.

I'm about to mount a full-throated defense of summer vacation, but I'm going to start with a caveat: summer is most definitely not a "vacation" for everyone. That includes a lot of teachers, obviously, but also a lot of parents, especially working class parents who find that the end of the school year brings new challenges as they try to keep their children occupied while they continue to go to work. We might like to think that parents working double shifts or holding down multiple jobs will just put their kids in the care of some responsible other adult while they're gone, but for too many people that's not even remotely possible. Kids often get left to their own devices when child care is unaffordable or unavailable, which is something we need to start handling head on as a society. And, anyway, child care is no easier to find in October or March than it is in July. It may be even harder to find then.

But obviously we don't make education policy with working parents in mind, so what's the argument for having school year-round? The benefits that accrue from year round school are usually framed in academic or logistical terms. The academic argument boils down to this: kids forget stuff. When they get regular attention all year they're less likely to forget stuff. When their "learning deficiencies" can be remediated they're more likely to remember more stuff. Therefore, year round school should be good for them. The logistical argument is that staggering year round schedules can free up resources by reducing overcrowding.

I don't find either of these arguments particularly persuasive. The logistical argument only underscores our unwillingness to commit necessary resources to public education: there wouldn't be any need to ration space and time if schools were fully funded, except in emergency situations. The academic argument, to me, is even less convincing. What it reveals is a misplaced sense of what school is for, and an impoverished view of what kids are capable of doing. To me, school is about much more than academic learning, even if academics deserve a central place in the school experience. School is also a place to bring people of different backgrounds together—an imperative in a multicultural democratic society—and a place for political education. I'm not talking about indoctrination, obviously. I mean that school should be a place where people learn about the exercise of power in our society and begin to find a place within the structures that support it. Do shorter breaks improve retention of information? Probably. Is that synonymous with learning? Not always.

The best argument I've heard for year-round schooling is that the regular breaks it provides help teachers and students avoid burnout. Fair enough, and I'm all for that. Of course, in a perfect world teachers and students wouldn't be burned out by school because they'd enjoy being there. Everyone has bad days, but it's not that far-fetched to think that school could be something to look forward to, not something to look forward to leaving.

So what are the arguments for sticking with the schedule we have? I'll lead with my best argument: it works. One of the great mysteries of the school reform movement of the past forty years, if you ask me, is that we turned to businesses to model what we wanted our schools to become when we already had schools that were the envy of the world right here under our noses that could have served as models instead. I'm not talking about the K-12 schools we already had, of course, although rumors of their ineptitude may have been greatly exaggerated; I'm talking about our post-secondary colleges and universities, which were (and in many ways still are—though you'd have a hard time believing it with the rhetoric of failure now swirling around them too) the envy of the world. This fact alone seems to reveal one of the false premises of the reform agenda. How could our failing K-12 system coexist alongside a postsecondary system that people still flock to from all over the world? Believe it or not, some people even think our system of postsecondary education is still the best in the world. Imagine that.

Now, obviously, our colleges and universities don't get the respect they do because of summer break, and they're not perfect either. But if you compare the experience of being a student or teacher in a college or university to being one in an elementary, middle or high school you can't help but be startled. College students enjoy more freedom to study what they want to study, more autonomy in their extracurricular lives, and more opportunities to expand their horizons. Their teachers enjoy greater professional respect, generally higher salaries, more flexibility, and, lest we forget, many (albeit a dwindling number) are still protected by a true system of tenure. Some still even enjoy sabbaticals every so often—not carefree vacations, as they are often characterized, but time to stop and focus on something new, time to travel to new places and have new experiences, time to work with colleagues in other countries or at other institutions to improve their work. The traditional academic calendar supports all of this by providing college professors with the most valuable resource any teacher could ever have: time. 

But instead of doubling down on these ideas that already work and make sense, we've spent forty years trying to do the opposite in our K-12 schools and are now actively trying to undo them in postsecondary schools. We've traded a hoary but sage piece of advice—if it ain't broke, don't fix it—for a strategy focused on choosing solutions first then finding problems to match up to them. That doesn't seem like a winning startegy to me.

I love my summer break. I wish every teacher enjoyed the benefits I have. I make barely more in salary as a college professor than I would at my old job as a teacher, but I enjoy a nine-month contract year (no, I don't get paid for the months I don't work) and professional opportunities I never dreamed of having as a high school teacher. In less than a week I'll be embarking on an adventure with my wife and kids—the Great American Road Trip, starting here in Pennsylvania, reaching a halfway point in California, and then heading back home again. We're doing it for no better reason than to see my little brother get married, and we're able to do it because our whole family has time together to do it. I've got thousands of miles to read what I want to read, think what I want to think, and pay attention to the experience instead of thinking about work. I have no doubt I'll return recharged and reenergized to start the school year.

Here's hoping all of you have that experience too, or something like it. Let's meet again in a month to talk about how to make that kind of opportunity available to everybody who wants it.

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