Why Do We Have Extended Summer School Vacations?

I like the idea of a longer school year and a longer school day, and my sense is that many Americans agree with me — particularly those concerned about the quality of our K-12 schools. And as lackluster as our K-12 schools may be, there is strong evidence that time spent out of school exacerbates achievement gaps, as Molly Fifer and Alan Krueger observed in their paper on summer learning loss. Knowledge gained during the school year erodes for all students during long periods out of school, yet it erodes faster for some students (generally poor children living in disrupted households in which intellectual enrichment is relatively hard to come by) than for others. Not surprisingly, this effect compounds over time.

So why haven’t we done something about summer school vacations and the relatively short school day? One theory is that both reflect America’s agrarian past. Peter Orszag writes the following:

School hours in the United States were developed during the 19th century, in part to allow students to help their families with farm work in the afternoon. We are no longer an agrarian economy, but most schools still get out around 3 p.m.

It’s time for a change: Schools should remain open until 5 or 6 p.m. The result would be better-educated students and less-stressed parents.

Before we turn to school hours, consider the length of the school year. As Dartmouth economist William Fischel noted in a 2003 article, nineteenth century farmers in temperate climates generally needed extra hands not during the summer months but rather during spring and autumn to help with planting and harvesting. 

Rural New England schools in fact responded to the seasonal rhythms of agriculture. For almost the entire nineteenth century, rural New Englanders held school in the winter and in the summer, with fall and spring off for harvesting and planting. New England was the historical leader in universal public education, so its experience is most relevant to the norms that spread elsewhere.

Their nineteenth-century school districts, formed to enable children to walk to one-room school houses, had almost complete discretion with respect to school calendars, and they were highly responsive to local voter sentiment. The foregoing historical accounts mention that the summer term was mostly attended by younger children. Their older siblings would often work on the farm and attend school only in the winter. Thus summer was a time for agricultural work for some children. But today’s longer school year cannot have emerged from this tradition, since the opportunity cost of school attendance by most youth was clearly highest in fall and spring.

And while it was difficult to cool most schools in the summertime, Fischel notes that this doesn’t explain the uniformity of the school year across regions. Schools in cities, for example, often remained open during the summer despite the heat. 

Many cities had long school years, often twice as long as that of their rural cousins. The modern summer-and-September calendar did not become a national norm until the early part of the twentieth century. The convergence of rural and city schools on a uniform calendar apparently occurred gradually and without any central direction. City schools shortened their school year by eliminating summer, and rural districts lengthened their calendar by eliminating summer and adding spring and fall. By the 1920s, the September-to-June school year seems to have become the dominant if not the invariable norm.

To return to school hours, it is certainly possibly that children engaged in household production in the late afternoon. But we’ve already seen that schools that once responded to the rhythms of agriculture later abandoned the practice, so it seems unlikely that agriculture is such is responsible for the persistence of the practice.

Fischel argues that the real reason for summer school vacations is that they serve as a coordinating mechanism that can facilitate and accommodate both graded schooling and geographical mobility:

In order for graded instruction to work over a period of years, school calendars had to be regularized. It would not do for third grade to start in June and end in February if fourth grade started in December and ended in August. Increasing attendance at high schools after 1900 also required that elementary schools adopt a school year that was synchronized with high schools and thus with each other. The efficiencies of graded schooling required that children in all grades start and finish at the same time of year.

Graded schools clearly encouraged a single beginning date for all students in the same school. But why should that same time of year be early September, and why should it be preceded by ten weeks of vacation? And how did these dates become a national standard? I propose that it was the intermetropolitan mobility of American workers, which was perfected early in the twentieth century, that made summer vacation with a September beginning the inevitable choice all over the nation.

So what we’re dealing with are network effects. Before the advent of graded schooling, mobility wasn’t necessarily a problem. Children would be evaluated and grouped appropriately in small, intimate schools that offered more personalized instruction. Industrial-scale schools couldn’t really function this way, as the benefits that flowed from scale would have been squandered. It is at least possible that as we return to personalized instruction in the context of so-called blended schools that combine elements of distance education and traditional schooling, the need for coordination will decline.

Teachers also benefit from a coordinated calendar, for obvious reasons. It is also possible that organized public school teachers are somewhat reluctant to embrace a much longer school day, as it represents a significant break from past practice. Parents, similarly, might resist the change. Even if a majority of parents would benefit from a longer school day, as Orszag suggests, a vocal minority might balk, and the universe of providers of supplementary educational services might also resist the change. And an extended school day in some but not all jurisdictions would introduce the same coordination problems for graded schooling, i.e., some 5th graders would know radically more than other 5th graders, due to the cumulative impact of a longer school day.

This flows into the summer learning loss problem we noted earlier on. Extended summer school vacations are more of a problem for less-affluent children from disrupted families than for more-affluent children from intact families. While the opportunity cost of minding children is higher for more-affluent parents in terms of foregone wages, these parents presumably have somewhat more leverage in their employment relationships and they have a scale advantage (two reasonably reliable parents rather than one). Given that these more-affluent parents tend to be more politically influential, and more likely to impact housing prices at the margin, their relative contentment with the status quo counts for a lot. And it’s not clear that less-affluent parents are pressing for a dramatically extended school year, so there is no real countervailing pressure — except, that is, from a small number of school reformers.

Fifer and Krueger proposal — a program of federally-funded summer opportunity scholarships designed to help mitigate summer learning loss — strikes me as a smart workaround. It doesn’t inconvenience the middle-class parents who might resist an extension of the school year, yet it might help arrest and perhaps even reverse summer learning loss. And if these programs proved sufficiently successful, middle-class parents could choose to opt-in to similar programs over time. This would tend to dull the gap-closing effect, but it would contribute to a better-educated K-12 population overall. 

We might also embrace federal intervention to extend school years and school days in coordinated fashion. But such a step would undoubtedly encounter serious resistance, and not just from conservatives.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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