Alexander Roberson Says Our Nation’s Summer Spells from School are Antiquated and Need to Change in Order to Help Improve Our Education System.
I grew up on a lake. Well, two lakes, actually, divided by a thin man made peninsula. There was West Loon Lake, which was the lake with public access. West Loon Lake was always noisy, full of boaters and strangers. And then there was East Loon Lake. East Loon Lake had only residents on the shores, and it was connected—like all the lakes in the Chain of Lakes region in northeastern Illinois—to Sun Lake by a twisting, murky, shaded creek.
We lived a good forty five minute walk down the rail tracks from town and I was too young to drive, so when school let out for the summer, bicycles and boats were king for my friends and me. I would take a good book and find a cool spot under the brush along that creek between East Loon Lake and Sun Lake and read for hours until someone found me, looking for company on the bike ride to the Liquor Store to buy soda from Sam, the Indian immigrant who tolerated so many children in his store because he knew we were his best customers.
Summer vacation is a pillar of childhood. From small towns on the Wisconsin border to the metropolis of New York City, children of every age sit anxiously in their seats, waiting for those last few seconds of the school year to march into oblivion and signal the beginning of summer. Two and half months of freedom. Two and half months of afternoon rides down to see Sam.
I want to kill summer vacation. And summer vacation has it coming.
It is a well-documented and established fact that education in America is not up to our own standards. Only 75.5 percent of students in America graduate high school. Our national system of education—that is to say our patchwork of state developed systems that in theory serve as Petri dishes for ideas and programs—works exceedingly well for some students and fails others. In Illinois, for example, 80.4 percent of students graduate high school in four years. In my adoptive home state of Alabama, just 69 percent graduate in the same time frame, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The reasons for our troubled education system are as many and as varied as the Petri dish states in the Union. In Los Angeles, tenure prevents under-performing teachers from being fired. So they’re sent to inner city schools like the ones in the neighborhood of Watts to teach under-performing and struggling children. Children in places like Watts need the brightest and most dedicated of teachers to help them overcome, not the worn out, bad, or just-couldn’t-fire-them teachers. Some schools have severe lack of funding. Some schools are overcrowded. Some schools are understaffed.
Most schools let out for the summer.
Tenure, school funding, new buildings, better teachers. All those issues—all those contributing factors—are hot button and they are difficult to overcome. But summer school is a simple fix and the benefits are enormous. By rearranging the way we attend school, we can improve our children’s learning and aid in their ability to retain what they’ve learned without increasing the number of days or hours they’re actually in the building.
And it all has to do with that two and half month gap.
A study at Johns Hopkins showed that students of differing socio-economic statuses tend to do similarly well during the academic year, but during summer vacation, poorer students fall behind their more well off classmates. Poor students come from families that cannot afford to send them to supplementary learning programs. Poorer students do not go on family vacations and visit the Field Museum. Poorer students tend to sit in front of the television all summer. Or get into trouble, as kids will do—and I certainly did. Poorer students do not have the opportunities afforded to richer students that continue to exercise their brain and keep their minds limber and working at full capacity. And on that note, many students from more well-to-do families fail to capitalize on those same opportunities.
The two and half month gap between periods of structured learning means that when students return to school in the fall, days and even weeks are spent catching up on what was lost to East Loon Lake. Some students simply need a refresher course; some students have fallen months behind. According to that same Johns Hopkins study, summer vacation accounts for two-thirds of the gap between regular and low-income students by ninth grade.
The answer is simple: year round school. And many school districts are beginning to see the benefits. The National Association for Year-Round Education reports that year round schooling—that is to say, the same 180 days redistributed—has increased 441 percent since the mid-1980s. Having school year round allows for students to keep their minds constantly working, and during the summer breaks—yes, there are summer breaks, however short—their minds remain in high idle. Information isn’t lost as easily. It hasn’t been three months since our children really sat down to work on a math equation. The brain is a wonderful example of “use it or lose it” and keeping breaks short keeps everything our students learned in use.
Year round school does not mean the death of summer. It doesn’t mean draconian hours spent in rooms of whitewashed cinderblocks and florescent lightening as warm summer days pass outside the window. Summer breaks will still exist, though for not as long as they used to. Winter Break, Spring Break, Fall Break? They all pick up days, redistributed from summer. Changing to year round school reflects the society in which we live. Summer vacation is a holdover from agrarian times, and it’s stifling our education system.
I say, take those days from summer. Add them to winter. It’s cost effective, relatively easy to do, and could close up to two-thirds of the achievement gap.
A longer winter break never hurt anyone. You can always skate on the East Loon Lake during winter.