Ed Quillen: Does stretching the school year make sense?
August 28, 2009
Even after my own daughters were graduated from the local public schools, I watched the school calendar on account of “back to school” sales.
Since I’m self-employed, I buy my own office supplies, which often coincide with school supplies – pencils, pens, paper, folders, binders, notebooks, etc. Retailers often mark down school supplies as loss leaders to get you into the store, and so I stock up. Their loss is my gain.
The sales used to start in early August, but in recent years the signs sprout right after Independence Day. At first I thought that this was just an extension of “Put up the Christmas stuff even before Halloween,” but then I discovered that school is actually starting much earlier – like a couple of weeks ago, in the middle of August.
The traditional summer vacation runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day. It evolved when Americans were farmers. They needed their children to help in the fields; after harvest, the kids could be spared for the three Rs.
Nowadays less than 2 percent of Americans are farmers. The traditional schedule might make sense in a few farm towns, but there’s a problem in running a school schedule to fit the local community.
Once I was at a local school board meeting where the board was discussing an August start. Several audience members pointed out that Salida’s a tourist town with a busy summer, and many businesses relied on the labor of teenagers. So please, wait until after Labor Day.
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Some sniffed at this economic argument. An administrator pointed out that, because of a regulation tying the start of football practice to a certain interval before the start of classes, a late start would mean the Spartans would have less practice than their gridiron opponents.
So football pushes schools toward a common schedule, even if the community could do better with its own schedule.
What other factors account for the Incredible Shrinking Summer Vacation?
There’s a theory that children turn off their minds in the summer.
Really? I loved summer because nearly every morning, I rode my bike to the library for more books. Summer vacation meant I could read “The Count of Monte Cristo,” Oswald Spengler’s “The Decline of the West” and lots of Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce and H.L. Mencken, a vast improvement on school tedium like “Silas Marner,” “Great Expectations” and “The Turn of the Screw.”
Martha recalls much the same of her summers – great reading, much more interesting and challenging than what school required.
Educators also argue that kids’ minds don’t just park in the summer, they go into reverse. Consider this from an article in “The Review of Educational Research”: “The meta-analysis indicated that the summer loss equaled about one month . . . .”
In other words, three months off pushes you back a month. Did you once know how to solve a quadratic equation in May but forget by September? Could you diagram a sentence before school got out, but not when classes resumed? You knew the name of the Pequod’s captain in “Moby Dick,” but forgot Ahab three months later?
It never happened to me or anyone I know. Further, if every three months outside the classroom puts you back a month, where does that put us adults? I spent 15 years, at nine months a year, in classrooms, for 135 months of schooling. Since then I’ve spent about 320 months out of school, which should regress me by about 107 months by their formula, back to the start of fifth grade.
Even so, I feel more knowledgeable now than I did in 1960. If there is a need to extend the school year, they need to come up with some better arguments.