Photo by Marlith.
“You know what I like about summer days? They’re just made for doing things … even if it’s nothing. Especially if it’s nothing.”
Calvin, the fictional young boy who frequently converses with his stuffed tiger in the illustrated comic series Calvin and Hobbes, perfectly captures a child’s frame of mind during summer vacation. In short, summer equals freedom. After nine months of schoolwork and exams, students relish the opportunity to embrace a less structured environment and are ready to have some good old-fashioned fun.
However, even Calvin is well aware that a three-month long brain break is potentially harmful to his academic development.
“Boy, I love summer vacation. I can feel my brain beginning to atrophy already.”
Calvin may be a fictional character with a remarkable vocabulary for a six year old, but real-life studies have shown that kids can fall behind in their educational development during the off-season. The phenomenon is commonly known as “summer slide,” where students K-8 are less likely to retain what they learn during the school year if they don’t keep up some form of education during the summer. According to the National Summer Learning Association, children can lose up to three months of learning progress they made during the school year. Compared to the end of the school year, kids can come back in September with lower reading scores and even greater losses to math computation skills.
The problem is that the US academic calendar is simply outdated. Alan Reifman, Ph.D. and Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Texas Tech University, told BTR the origins of the traditional American school year go back to when the US economy was very different from what we have now.
“The current system of three month summer vacation goes back to when much of the US economy was agricultural, and so the students would use their time off in the summer to work on the farm,” explains Reifman.
So yes, summer vacation was originally meant to be a time for children to enjoy the great outdoors. However, instead of summer camp and swim teams, children were sent out in the field to help out their parents on the farm. Now, Reifman says, “only a very small percentage of the economy is agricultural and kids don’t need three months off for farming purposes, so the need for three months off is no longer relevant.”
A changing economy is precisely why American students would benefit from an extended school year. As it stands now, Reifman says, “the US has a shorter school year than other countries that are our main economic competitors. So the idea is to lengthen the school year so that our children will learn more and be more competitive economically.”
The push for an extended school year, especially for young students, is a logical one, but it is not without its own set of complications. More time in the classroom means more working hours for teachers and staff, all of whom need to be paid for their work. Education may be a major concern, but so are finances, and just earlier this month, the New York Times reported that schools nationwide actually shortened their school year by a few days and some even opted for a four-day week, all due to budget cuts.
Aside from financial concerns, the issue remains that most students would rather not give up their cherished summer vacations. Those willing to put in the time, though, reap the benefits. Reifman has taught summer classes at Texas Tech in the past, and says, “Summer classes tend to be smaller than regular semester classes, so there can be more discussion and in-depth exploration of the subject matter.”
Taking college courses over the summer demonstrates a certain amount of maturity. Reifman makes a good point, saying, “students who choose to come to summer school probably are more motivated. If you make the decision that you are going to bypass these more fun and enjoyable summer activities and go back to school, that might mean you are a more motivated student in general or that you want to graduate sooner.”
However, taking summer courses could also be a strategic move for students who choose to work smarter, not harder. For example, a student might take one or two summer courses in order to lighten his or her course load during the fall and spring terms. In fact, Reifman told BTR he did just that when he was an undergraduate student.
Although summer school may seem like a punishment to students or a financial burden to taxpayers and school boards, the fact of that matter is that the care and attention that we pay to children’s physical fitness should be granted equally to their mental fitness if we hope to have a successful education system.
Written By: Mary Kate Polanin