We’ve had public schools in America since before we actually had America. On April 23, 1635, the Boston Latin School opened in Boston. (Its alumni include John Hancock and Samuel Adams.)
We haven’t, however, always had uniform approaches to schooling. For instance, Massachusetts continued to lead the way for public education, requiring children to attend school in 1852. It was 1918 when Mississippi finally signed on, making it universal across the country.
Of course, many children attended school before it was required. Sometimes they attended a lot of it. New York City schools were open 248 days per year in 1842, compared to their current 180. (Most states go with 180 today. There are variations. North Carolina has a bit more at 185; Colorado sets its minimum at just 160.) Even more impressively, those days were stretched out over an incredible 49 weeks. This wasn’t uncommon in cities back then. Philadelphia actually topped New York, with a reported 251.5 days.
So what happened to all those days, particularly during the summer? There were two key developments, both a bit haphazard but each with a lasting impact.
Looking for the Lowest Common Denominator
As the 19th century progressed, there was an increasing desire for something approaching a uniform approach to public education, first on a more regional level, then on a national one. (For instance, in 1874 New York City enacted its first compulsory attendance law for primary grades.)
So let’s say a city wants every school to offer the same number of days, but finds different neighborhoods use different amounts. If you force a school to offer more days, additional money is needed. If you allow a school to reduce its days, your costs go down. The result: a shrinking school year.
So days needed to be cut. Which ones would go?
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Beat the Heat
For New York, there was definitely a time when nobody wanted to be in a crowded school: summer. As modern New Yorkers can tell you, even with air conditioning the Big Apple is a rough place come August. Indeed, city dwellers with money then (as now) often fled to cooler locations in the summer and took their kids with them. That made it an obvious choice for New York: Shut down in summer.
In metropolitan areas in general, in fact, summer was a logical time for a break. (Air conditioning wasn’t invented until 1902 and it would be additional decades before most people had ready access to it.) So as the 19th century neared a conclusion and there came a push to have a standard approach to school schedules, the urban areas already had a plan — and the rural schools came to accept it.
Which suited city more than country.
Not for Farmers
Did summer break benefit less-developed areas? Not really.
After all, a summer vacation is decidedly not based on an agrarian schedule. When do farmers need the most labor? Typically they need it planting in the spring and then they need it again harvesting in the fall. There’s still work to do between those seasons, of course, but a lengthy summer vacation clearly wasn’t ideal for agriculture.
Or, arguably, for education in general.
The Summer Slide
Many educators argue we shouldn’t have a long summer vacation. Research suggests a “summer slide,” as lengthy educational gaps cause students to regress, particularly if they come from disadvantaged backgrounds. (After all, wealthy parents can ensure their children attend enriching programs all summer, while those struggling just to pay the bills probably can’t do the same for their kids.)
Other experts push back against this theory. Unfortunately, they aren’t so much defending an extended summer as indicting our educational system as whole: They believe it’s not that students regress; it’s that they failed to learn in the first place.
Leading to the question: Is there a better way? After all, for some countries, including Australia and Japan, it’s year-round schooling.
All Year Long
Let’s operate on the assumption that a year-round (or balanced calendar) school would have the same number of days as our current approach. With this new schedule, a school might have a break each quarter — say, two or three weeks — with that time off then subtracted from the standard summer vacation.
Why do it? California’s Department of Education noted it could potentially allow for more students to attend a school:
“The advantage of a multitrack system is that it expands the seating capacity of a school facility. For example, if a school with a seating capacity of 1,000 uses a four-track system, it could potentially enroll 1,333 students, increasing its capacity by 33 percent. In practice, four-track plans typically expand the seating capacity by about 25 percent.”
Many parents also support it. Back in 2013, columnist LZ Granderson laid out his argument in The New York Times. Discussing how Duke University’s Harris Cooper, an education professor and chairman of the psychology and neuroscience department, had found kids can forget months worth of math and reading during summer, Granderson concluded, “This is why I equate summer vacations with putting change in a pocket that has a small hole in it. The longer the problem is ignored, the bigger the problem becomes.”
There are critics of this approach, too. They argue a shortened summer could make it difficult for students to get summer jobs and receive that work experience and income. Some argue students simply need a break. Psychologist Lisa Damour noted the pandemic only emphasized that kids, particularly teens, require sufficient time to recover from a school year.
“[I]t’s important to remember that building psychological muscle is a lot like building physical muscle,” she wrote the Times in 2021. “Any kid who has spent time in a gym knows that you gain strength when a period of exertion is followed by an interval of sufficient recovery.”
Teachers may also prefer the longer summer. It allows for greater time to revamp lesson plans and, quite frankly, because they may need summer jobs of their own — a reminder the budgeting issues that shrank our school years in the 19th century are still very much with us today.
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