The case against the long summer vacation

Posted: Sunday, August 15, 2010

The start of a new school year is just around the corner. On Aug. 24, some 9,000-plus kids in the Kenai Peninsula School District will tumble back into classrooms from Tyonek to Nanwalek to begin another nine months of learning.

Actually, a good chunk of those first two to three weeks will be spent re-learning.

Educators know that kids' brains can't help but turn to sieves over the summer. For the most part we all have just come to accept that teachers and students will be re-hashing last year's lessons as part of the new school year ritual.

We'd propose something different - abolish summer vacation.

Time magazine explored the idea in its Aug. 2 cover story, "The Case Against Summer Vacation." The case is that learning opportunities are lost to long summer breaks and kids' learning atrophies. This isn't a new argument; educators have been saying for the latter part of the 20th century that American students are lagging behind their counterparts in other industrial nations. Kids go to school longer in South Korea, Denmark, Japan Brazil and New Zealand. And students in all those countries score higher in math than American kids.

The excuse in America has always been that we've modeled the school year after agrarian life patterns: Summer is time for planting and cultivating, and families need every member - youngsters as well as adults - on the farm. As we evolved into an industrialized economy, we didn't allow the education schedule evolve, we just filled summers with other stuff - from more positive outdoors activities to marathon video games.

Two things stand in the way, however - culture and cost.

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Steve Atwater is one of those educators who knows full well the benefits to changing the current three-month-off schedule. He also knows that especially here on the Peninsula, it wouldn't be easy.

"Everything shifts gear in summer," Atwater said recently. "Especially here. In Alaska, families plan long vacations Outside. They fish, they camp. There's a whole culture built around the summer."

The cost could be an issue, as well, but only if you look at it as simply adding more class time. Atwater pointed to scheduling models that spread the 180 days of instruction over the year - shorter classroom sessions, with longer breaks in between, and spreading across the summer months.

And think of the money we might save by giving students three weeks off in January and turning down the thermostats.

Summertime classwork doesn't have to be desk time either. Atwater and other educators noted model programs in the Lower 48 that are more like supper camps, with plenty of athletic activities mixed with academics. Other programs partner with local business and industries that see the potential of having better educated students as future employees.

There are as many alternatives as there are reasons to not change the current school year. What stands in the way is actually just habit - saying this is the way we've always done it.

In short: Re-thinking the school year schedule may be one of the radical ideas we to consider to improve education.

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