More school, less summer?

Top-performing South Korea requires 220 days of school, “22 percent more than our measly minimum of 180 days,” writes the New York Post. Are the lazy days of summer too lazy in the U.S.?

“More advantaged families . . . travel to Civil War battlefields, visit foreign cities and their art museums, and learn about the geography of the Grand Canyon,” says Jay Greene, a University of Arkansas education professor. “I’m convinced that my own kids and those of many other upper-middle-class families learn far more from those summer experiences than they do during the rest of the school year.”

But low-income kids lose a lot of learning over the summer, says Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

That’s why high-performing charter schools like KIPP, Democracy Prep and Success Academy have significantly longer school days and longer school years.

“When it comes to learning math and science,” Pondiscio says, “more is more.”

If school isn’t working well, more may mean more boredom. I’d prefer to see fun, educational summer programs for kids who aren’t going to be visiting the Grand Canyon.

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  1. With all due respect to Professor Greene, 80% of the American public is no longer employed in or directly connected to the agricultural sector so the rationale for the summer vacation now would be what?

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Summer vacation was never about agriculture. In fact, the busiest time for farming families is planting and harvest, in the spring and fall.

      Summer vacation has a number of other reasons. People are more likely to move in the summer. Without air conditioning, many schools are oppressive in the summer. School employees like to take vacations in the summer. Summer is the time most seasonal jobs open up. Letting kids out of school means they can take those jobs.

      • Deirdre Mundy says:

        If you read the Little House books, they always go to school in the summer. As a homeschooler, we go to school year-round but take random days off for fun stuff.

        For literate kids, summer is a great time to gorge on all the books you didn’t have time for during the school year. For middle/upper middle class kids, it’s also a time for camps and trips and museums and swimming and hiking and whatnot.

        I think the problem is that the school needs of middle class kids and poor kids are actually very different. If home means healthy meals, library trips, national parks, swim lessons, reading, 4H projects, legos, bike rides, piano lessons etc. etc…. well, frankly, we’d be better off with shorter school days and years. Just hit math and reading and send the kids home!

        If home is ‘glued to the TV and junk food at best, and abuse and neglect at worse’ more school is better.

        There is no way to provide the same school environment to all students and meet the needs or the poor and the middle class.

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          Why, it’s almost like you get the best results by having the child in the best available environment for the longest possible time.

          Who would have imagined such a thing?

      • Just because planting and harvesting are the busiest time of the year doesn’t mean the time in between is for kicking back. The hard work never stops while you can see and while modern farmers have it easier it’s still a tough way to make a living.

        If you want to have some idea of how high the demand was for labor on the farm back then Google the term “orphan train”.

        Summer vacation has a number of other reasons *now* but when 80% of the populace is employed in the agricultural sector and kids were a crucial part of the labor pool summer vacation isn’t just a nice idea, it’s part of the way the political deal that went into the creation of the public education system had to be set up.

        Now, like so much about the public education system, and the public education system itself, it’s justified because it’s always been done that way but it’s also part of the unsustainably sweet deal that typifies so much about the public education system. I suspect however that there will come a time in the not too distant future when cutting tens of millions of kids loose pretty much simultaneously will be seen as an odd, if not quaintly old fashioned, way to do education.

        • Ted Craig says:


          Google “summer vacation not linked farming.” Here’s one piece that will turn up:

          • Oh come on Ted, I could Google “socialism the engine of prosperity” and turn up learned articles of no more depth then the one you linked and no more validity.

            When 90% of the population’s engaged in a single sector of the economy, which is about what part of the populace was in the agricultural sector when public education started to make some real inroads, it’s that sector of the economy that’s going to dictate how labor’s used and without much concern for what the poorly-regarded paladins of that era’s public education establishment might decree.

            You do, however, display your knowledge of the agricultural sector in this sentence – “Summer is actually a lull in (work?) for farmers” – which is, not much.

            The only lull for farmers is when something makes it impossible to work. A snow storm or darkness. Otherwise there are always things that are broken that need fixing, things that aren’t broken that need maintenance and things that need neither but could be improved. That’s why there were orphan trains, a term I’m assuming you didn’t look up because it wouldn’t fit with the narrative you and Mr. Taylor are peddling.

            Phillip, thanks for demonstrating the sort of deeply creepy individual who’s drawn to the defense of the public education system. Nothing I could write could so eloquently capture and demonstrate what, and who, is required to defend that institution. I sincerely urge you to share similar sentiments, similarly worded, in the future.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Traditionally, planting and harvest are times when everyone is needed to work. Farms can’t spare kids for school. While there is still work to be done in the summer and winter, kids can be spared.

            Summer vacation was not set by the needs of agriculture.

          • I’ve read that unsupported assertion a couple of times already Roger. Be nice if the people repeating the mantra would deal with evidence to the contrary but I suspect that’s not going to happen. That is, however, consistent with the various defenses of the various facets of the public education system; an appeal to non-existent authority that justifies the highhanded ignoring of inconvenient facts.

          • Ted Craig says:

            Oh come on, allen. Several people have provided refutations for your claims and you all you can fall back on is “orphan trains.” You are right about one thing – it was inaccurate to say “lull for farmers” when I should have written “lull for farm workers.” You have provided no evidence to support your claim. There’s no point in debating with the stubbornly ignorant, so I’m going to end this now. Feel to free to assume you’ve “won the thread.”

          • Actually Ted I did provide evidence of the demand for labor in the agricultural sector – those orphan trains – and having no response you chose to ignore it. Hardly anything remarkable about that, In fact, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that much of the defense of the public education system consists of pretty much the same tactic.

            I suppose that if you have no valid response to make, and the appeal to authority doesn’t work and you’re incapable of questioning your presumptions and you’re not in a position to crush the impertinent, you have no recourse but to rhetorically purse your lips into a thin, disapproving line and flounce off. Not much to be proud of in that response but that’s the sort of thing you’re reduced to when trying to defend the indefensible.

            You can take some solace in the fact that the defense of the public education system attracts folks of the nature of Phillip. He makes you look good by contrast.

            Well, maybe there isn’t much solace to gotten out of that.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            You know, it’s funny. I googled “orphan train” and found nothing about the origin of summer vacation. From wikipedia, “The Orphan Train Movement was a supervised welfare program that transported orphaned and homeless children from crowded Eastern cities of the United States to foster homes located largely in rural areas of the Midwest. The orphan trains operated between 1853 and 1929, relocating about 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children.”

            But when I googled “cause of summer vacation,” I found things like, “you can attribute summer vacation to the school reformers of the 19th century … School reformers wanted to get rural and urban schools on the same schedule. SINCE RURAL AREAS HAD TWO TERMS – IN THE SUMMER AND WINTER – and urban schools ran year round, a compromise had to be struck.” [capitalization added]


            One of the running gags on the old TV show “Happy Days” was that Fonzie could never quite say, “I was wrong” or “I’m sorry” or “It was my fault” even when he knew it was true.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            I used to think schools had summer vacation because of agriculture. After all, crops grow in the summer.

            But I was wrong. Though there was weeding and maintenance and a hundred other things to do in the summer, the demand for manpower peaked in the spring (preparing the soil and planting the crop) and fall (harvest).

            It’s never fun admitting I’m wrong. But it has happened so often, I’m kind of used to it.

          • So what do you think, Roger, was there just a whole lot more compassion out on the Great Plains then in the cramped, Eastern cities? Is that why the orphan trains ran full from east to west?

            I suppose if you have no response to make it’s just best to try to ignore the lack but outside the comment threads of this blog that approach isn’t really working any more. The mockery to which I reduce you isn’t a hallmark of insightfulness or honesty but of a refusal to come to terms with the fact that you have nothing else with which to respond.

            Why do you think the district-based public education system is falling apart? It’s not because of Bill Gates or the Waltons or the Koch brothers but because all the old tactics are no longer workings.

            The appeals to authority and the assumption of authority are losing their credibility as the excuses become increasingly shrill and self-destructive. Apathy and tired resignation are giving way to demands by parents to put authority back in the hands of parents. The demand’s obviously sounding pretty good to a lot of people because that’s what’s happening.

            Feel free to find some other canceled TV show that that situation reminds you of.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Not more compassion. More opportunity. And if you were taken in by a farm family, there was a very good chance you would get enough to eat. The same could not be said in the cities of the east.

          • Har!

            Oh yeah, there was lots of opportunity.

            There was opportunity from can-see to can’t-see and if it weren’t for religion that “opportunity” would have gone on seven days a week.

            There was so much opportunity that kids raised to it can hardly wait to say goodbye to all that opportunity and swap it for a nice, restful sweat shop job. That’s why those Indonesian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai sweat shops never want for workers. Their workers got about as much of that opportunity as they could take. It’s the sort of opportunity that looks good when your alternative is starvation.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            You are absolutely right that in Indonesia, China, Vietnam, and Thailand, people flee the countryside and flock to the cities. Rural areas are crowded. One more person doesn’t add much to production, and one person less doesn’t reduce it much. Lots of people realize that they don’t have much of a future there.

            The situation in the American midwest from 1853-1929 was very different. There was a lot of land and not that many people. People thought that there was opportunity galore. These opportunities declined over time and, in fact, were no longer there in the 1920s–but inertia and a feeling that rural areas were morally better than cities kept the program alive until the beginning of the Depression.

          • “Rural areas are crowded”? I’m pretty sure when rural areas are crowded they’re called “cities”.

            As to why those third world folks are deserting the farm it’s the same reason American farm kids deserted the farm – hard work that never ends, punctuated by boredom, with the distinct possibility of dying of starvation.

            You can try to finesse the point by ignoring the demand for labor necessary to realize the “opportunities” to which you refer but that’s just a rhetorical flourish necessitated by the poor quality of your arguments.

            But you and the other stalwarts have to do a lot of carefully considered ignoring, don’t you?

            Doesn’t speak well of the institution you’ve chosen to defend but if you were capable of giving the institution much in the way of consideration you wouldn’t be trying with such poor results to defend it.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            The third world is full of rural villages.

            You are absolutely correct that people have always left for the reasons you set out. However, the number who leave varies tremendously over time.

            The major cause of that variation is the difference in opportunities between urban and rural areas (which also affects how many people move from urban to rural. For example, in the Great Depression, a substantial number of Americans moved “back to the farm.” They knew it wasn’t going to be a good life, but it beat having no job and no prospects in the city).

            Rural Indonesia, China, Vietnam, and Thailand today have a much higher land to labor ratio, and a much lower marginal productivity of labor, than did the US midwest in the period of the orphan trains.

            Movement between urban and rural is determined by “push” (how bad where you are now is) and “pull” (how much better the other place seems). These are different in different places at different times.

          • That’s all very nice Rodger but it doesn’t really change the labor requirements of agriculture and that those requirements would have had a greater influence over when a very convenient pool of labor would participate in the running of the farm or be larnin’ their readin’, writin’ an’ ‘rithmetic.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            I agree. That’s why, back before states had uniform school systems, rural areas had school in the summer and winter, and no school in the spring (soil preparation and crop planting) and fall (harvest).

    • Ted Craig says:

      The idea that kids received summer vacations because of agriculture is a myth. It was to get them out of the cities. Summer is actually a lull in for farmers.

      • PhillipMarlowe says:

        allen is busted again.
        Twice in one day.
        Maybe the squishing sound is him, and not the public school system choking on its own entrails, as allen hopefully wishes(prays?) for.

  2. I have fond memories from my child of goofing off in the summer and doing nothing whatsoever with any redeeming social value. I wouldn’t want to take that away from today’s kids.

  3. Ted Craig says:

    Here’s an experiment somebody should try: Take kids in a one semester fall class and give them their final at the end of the second semester. Let’s see how much they have retained in that period.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      I will be willing to bet a lot of money that they won’t have retained much.

      Kids forget a lot in the 2 1/2 months of summer vacation. They also forget a lot during any 2 1/2 month period while they are still in school.

      That’s because most school knowledge is tested and then put aside. Unless kids care, they forget most of it.

  4. If the goal is to improve retention, the solution isn’t more school but rather to implement, via technology, one of the memory/skill reinforcement methods that bring up older material at the proper intervals to improve incorporation/retention.

    It seems the “longer school year” meme is a way to avoid attacking the cultural bias against learning in some groups, who, as might be deduced, end up in the “disadvantaged” spectrum.

    So we have the average middle class kid levels off, the average disadvantaged kid loses a bit, both perhaps due to cultural biases in their communities. And the bright kids who are already bored to tears by the school year are again given more busy work that keeps them from their own learning and reinforcing the feeling that academic learning is victimization by force age-grouping by arbitrary authorities.