Closing the Gap October 18th, 2012
Ice cream trucks, bikes, Slip ‘n Slides. Swimming pools, snack bars, and Girl Scout camps. Backyard explorations and family vacations. As a kid, my summers were filled with all the things that many Americans wax nostalgic about when we talk about being out of school for three months each year. But all of a sudden I may find myself a proponent of banishing the tradition of summer vacation.
It all started here, with Dylan Matthews’ post on Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog about French President François Hollande’s proposal to eliminate homework. Matthews measures out the value of instructional time versus homework and the conclusions are not that compelling. However, in the final paragraphs of the post Matthews asserts that for real improvement in academic performance we should eliminate summer vacation. And from there my curiosity was piqued.
I posted a question to my Facebook friends and Twitter followers (@Gale_TDT):
“What if school became a year-round affair?”
The responses were quick to roll in and quite varied in opinion.
Interestingly, the two teachers who weighed in were against it. One made the argument that under a calendar with smaller breaks peppered throughout the year teachers would constantly be in ramp-up mode, and unable to maintain traction on content and curriculum with students they don’t see every school day. Others who spoke out against abolishing summer vacation did so for personal reasons – fond memories of their own childhood summers, or extra time for their kids to participate in other educational formats, such as art and music camps, traditional summer sleep-away camps, or merely for more time with a stay-at-home parent.
Most of the parents (working parents in particular) were all for it. And I can see their point. From a purely logistical perspective having kids home full time for 12 weeks places incredible childcare demands on two-working-parent families. One working mom also made the point that much of the summer is so hot that kids end up having to spend most of the afternoon inside anyway, and that vacation days in the spring and fall would be more enjoyable.
As each respondant explained his or her position I was surprised at how substantiable most of their opinions were. Each person had a reason, and usually a fair one, for their vote for or against year-round school. However, the one thing that all the answers had in common was that they were very local, even micro, in their perspective. Each person responded with a thumbs up or down based on how year-round school would affect them personally. I think, though, that if we’re going to answer this question in any compelling way, we have to look at a broader range of stakeholders.
Let’s talk for a minute about the achievement gap. If you’ve watched “The Race to Nowhere” or any of the other recent documentaries on the state of our public education system then you’re well aware that some schools produce kids who are equipped to perform well on standardized tests and thereby improve quality of their future educational and professional opportunities. Others do not. Not surprisingly kids who find themselves at the top of the achievement gap typically hail from well-funded suburban school districts and have parents who are heavily involved in homework, science projects, and the like. Those at the other end of the gap live in under-funded districts and have parents who are not involved in their academic lives. Also not surprisingly, the boundaries of this gap fall clearly along socio-economic and racial lines.
The obvious answer here is, “Well, close the gap.” But the trouble is much bigger than the gap, as this piece from National Affairs points out. Amidst other poignant observations made in the article, author Frederick Hess notes that,
The truth is that achievement-gap mania has led to education policy that has shortchanged many children. It has narrowed the scope of schooling. It has hollowed out public support for school reform. It has stifled educational innovation. It has distorted the way we approach educational choice, accountability, and reform.
When we factor No Child Left Behind into the equation, the narrowing and hollowing only continue, as Hess explains:
Because of the way “achievement gaps” are measured — using scores on standardized reading and math tests — any effort to “close the achievement gap” must necessarily focus on instruction in reading and math. Hence many schools, particularly those at risk of getting failing grades under NCLB, have fixated on reading and math exclusively; other subjects — art and music, foreign language, history, even science — have been set aside to make more time and resources available for remedial instruction. … All of this has eroded traditional notions of what constitutes a complete education.”
The reason I bring this up is that educators across the board note that the education gap is the greatest at the beginning of the school year, when privileged kids have lost little academic ground due to various camps and weekly outings to the library, etc., and when underprivileged kids have been left to their own devices, watching television, and fending for themselves. As one of my pro-summer vacation Facebook responders commented,
I think kids need a change of scenery, and some time to refresh. Also, camps can be really good learning experiences too. They can allow lids to develop specialized passions, whether it be going away to a music camp, sports camp or traditional camp. These are opportunities that just aren’t afforded to kids while they are in school. I think the real issue is, how do we provide enrichment opportunities that all can afford so there is no excuse for kids sitting idle over the summer?
I think she has a point, but I also think there’s a better way. Why is it too much to ask that our educational system afford those kinds of opportunities? Why is it too much to ask that kids be allowed – nay, encouraged! – to find their passions within the confines of a curriculum? Why can’t we broaden that curriculum to help students find and foster those passions? What kind of educational system evaluates only two subjects? What kind of educational system isn’t creative enough to measure performance in a more meaningful way?
I think that year-round school could provide a big leg up to underprivileged kids, without depriving more advantaged kids of the enrichment opportunities they’ve come to love about summer. If we do it right manyof those experiences could be worked into school, and would then be more universally available to all kids. I’m not saying this will be easy. I’m not saying it won’t be expensive. But I am saying that the people being most significantly shortchanged by the current system are the kids. We’ve created the wrong incentives. And in a generation or two we’re all going to pay the price.