Situationally Idle: Is Summer Vacation too Long for Kids?
Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 16, 2009
A pediatrician blogging on Daily Kos challenges the merits of 12-week-long summer vacation for kids. We excerpt his piece below.
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For some kids, summer vacation will mean a dizzying array of chores and sports, camps and sitters. For others, vacation means sitting camped out in front of a television ten hours a day, their toughest chore deciding which channel to watch or video game sport to play.
For others still, the aimless and adolescent in particular, summer vacation means loitering in parking lots and shopping malls, cruising questionable websites, and perhaps experimenting with drugs or alcohol, and getting into trouble. Countless children at loose ends for hours a day months at a time cannot be an unadventurous thing.
Summer vacation is a massive headache for today’s families. Seven in ten American children live in households where two parents work, or with a single working parent. That long summer vacation means jury-rigging daylong childcare for up to five days a week, for ten to twelve weeks. For most parents, summer vacation is more an obstacle than a break.
And it’s an expensive vacation, at that. Weeklong camps aren’t cheap. Neither is child care. The typical family with school-aged children spends about eight percent of their summertime earnings on childcare, an additional financial burden less easily handled by the less well-off. Meanwhile, expensive schools facilities, computers, texts, and transportation sit idle.
Not to seem the childhood Scrooge, but it’s time to take a fresh look at the traditional summer break. Most every other industrialized nation has longer school years than we do. Students in Japan attend school an average of 243 days, in Israel 216 days, in Thailand 200 days, and in England 192 days. Other modernized countries offer no more than seven consecutive weeks of summer vacation. Meanwhile, American school districts offer up to twelve.
In the long-gone world of plentiful jobs requiring little education, such comparisons mattered less. Summer vacation may once have made good sense, back when the economy was brawn-based, more rural, and more self-contained, and when academic achievement was of lower import.
In the 21st century, however, our children will someday find themselves competing with young adults from Europe, China, and India for the brain-based jobs that are an ever-increasing percentage of the global economy. While the long summer break never once had a rational basis in educational policy, in today’s world it is simply irrational that an advanced nation would elect to have its children fall educationally behind their global peers.
Summer vacation is not ordained by nature. Summer, yes; summer vacation, no. The now-standard 180-day academic calendar with a long summer holiday is not built into the molecular structure of the universe. Rather, it took shape in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
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The biggest problem with summer vacation today may be its impact on the academic achievement of low-income kids. It has long been established that achievement gaps between such children and their more well-off peers widen further during the summer months, while learning gains across social lines are nearly equivalent during the school year.
Kids lose a lot of momentum over the course of a summer vacation, poor children most of all. Call it vacation deflation, if you will. Students of all family incomes routinely score lower on standardized tests in September than in April, and grade school teachers routinely spend the first month or more of each new school year reviewing the previous year’s work. It’s not easy to retain information for three months without reinforcement, especially when science and math have to compete with television.
In particular, as researchers at Johns Hopkins University recently confirmed, economically disadvantaged children lose significant academic ground in the summer time, while their more advantaged peers – those more likely to read or to be shuttled from one edifying and expensive activity to another – do not. The long summer vacation just exacerbates the inequities that already exist beyond the schoolhouse doors.
By high school, that widening gap translates into academic skills in deficit by three grade levels or more. This then later translates into lower graduation rates, university admissions, and employment opportunities. All of which would be bearable were there some trump-card reason why summer vacation benefited children. But there isn’t.
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