Few events evoke as much nostalgia in parents as summer.
Despite heat waves, camps, vacations, jobs and time at the neighborhood pool create fond memories, which turn into pop songs dedicated to the joys of summer.
But for many parents from all walks of life, the summer break from school can be painful at the same time.
That pain is why in my new book, “From Reopening to Reinventing,” I argue that it’s been a long time since many more schools started offering year-round education. Such a move would not only help parents, but it would also reduce student stress and teacher burnout.
The parental pain comes from many quarters.
For some, it’s the pain and pressure of planning and constant coordination.
Parents often start planning for summer in November. Camp registrations start as early as December and places at the popular camps fill up quickly.
Trying to predict which activities kids will be interested in six months from now creates its own stress, as does the feeling that parents are letting their kids down if they don’t enroll them in the “right” activities, from robotics to coding, design engineering, or something else.
Many feel that they have to cram their children’s interests into the summer holidays rather than scatter them throughout the year, which pits academics, athletics, art and other passions against each other rather than modeling a balanced lifestyle.
Every week of the summer is also different for many families, making it difficult to create a rhythm. It is a challenge to coordinate every week who looks after and supervises the children.
Spreadsheets abound as parents try to juggle everyone’s schedules and make sure there aren’t any unstated hours.
“Every Sunday during the summer I have a slight panic,” said one parent on my podcast titled Class Disrupted, “because I don’t just have to sort out that information for myself and print maps of where the drop-off site is on this complicated campus, but now I have to pass that information on to three other people.”
There is also the cost of summer programs for parents.
And while academics debate whether there really is a “summer shift” — the idea that kids lose their academic gains during the summer months — it’s clear that for some families, summer is a time of tremendous enrichment that other families, especially those from low-income backgrounds or those who lack the social capital to know what opportunities to look for do not have access. In some cases, children even take advanced academic classes so that they can gain an edge over their peers when they return to school.
But the pain of summer doesn’t have to accompany its joys.
Many mistakenly believe that the current school calendar with its long summer vacation — known in education circles as the “farm calendar” — began to allow children to be home to help out during the farming season, when farming played a bigger role in the economy.
In reality, children in rural farming communities who were enrolled in school in the 19th centurye century typically spent five or six months in school—two to three months in the summer and two to three months in the winter. In the spring and autumn they were home to plant and harvest.
The children enrolled in urban areas in the 19th century went to school all year round with short breaks. In 1842, Detroit schools were open for about 260 days. New York’s was open for 245 days.
School wasn’t compulsory back then, so many students didn’t show up – especially in the hottest months in urban areas, given the lack of air conditioning. Many in the community were concerned that the summer was causing epidemics, and [was] most prolific diseases in general,” and said students would be better off at home or in the countryside.
To beat the summer heat, wealthy families took their children out of school and moved to the countryside or to the beach where the weather was cooler. As compulsory public school expanded, lawmakers and unions pushed for less school time and a more regulated summer vacation.
Decades later, we now treat this just as we do in school.
But there are public schools across the country that have year-round schooling, or what’s often known as a balanced calendar. According to the Congressional Research Service, in 1985 there were “410 public schools serving approximately 350,000 students year-round. . . . During the 2011-2012 school year, there were 3,700 public schools serving schools for more than 2 million students year-round.
These schools still offer breaks for students.
For example, in one model, students attend school for about 12 weeks, followed by three weeks of vacation throughout the year.
In another popular model, students enroll for about nine weeks and have two weeks off in between, with the exception of the summer, when they have about a month of vacation.
From Charleston, West Virginia to Holt, Michigan, many schools that offer year-round schooling report improved parent satisfaction and teacher happiness.
The reason for the “happier teachers” may be that the schedules offer more frequent breaks that help them rejuvenate. In this way, teachers avoid complete exhaustion at the end of the school year.
Of course, there are concerns when switching to such a school calendar.
Some fear that during the summer students will lose the opportunity to gain enriching experiences or keep jobs.
Rethinking schooling to create more space for enrichment activities with a more regular cadence or to make projects a core part of schooling so that enrichment opportunities are embedded in the school experience could address the primary concern.
As for work, it is true that holding a job allows students to acquire important workforce skills, awareness of the different career paths, and beneficial connections.
But in the past decade, fewer teens have worked than at any time in our country’s history. About 20 percent of teens were working before the pandemic, compared to, say, 40 percent in 1990.
While there are signs of change, there are also several reasons for these statistics, including many families who believe their children are better served by engaging in impressive-sounding extracurricular activities in the pursuit of college than by keeping a job.
The bottom line is that far too few adolescents take advantage of the summer to work – and schools could do a better job of integrating real-life community experiences for all students at school.
Another set of concerns revolves around nostalgia for the summer holidays.
There are also entire industries that have sprung up around the summer holidays, from camps to classes and resorts. In New England, where I live, there are cities that exist in the summer because their economies are so dependent on the holidays and tourist activities that take place during those months of the year.
As a result, there are vested interests in keeping the summer vacation as it is.
There are answers to these challenges. Among them, the reality is that in the summer, families would still have vacation time when they could escape to the seaside and summer music festivals. After all, there are relatively few families who can afford to spend the entire summer in a tourist location.
But more broadly, worries about losing something aren’t unique to summer vacation. The status quo often has a large following ready to push back any major change.
To create change, it is critical to find ways to address the unavoidable fear people will experience around proposed changes. Change only happens when the pain of a current situation plus the attraction of the new overcomes existing habits and fears. This usually doesn’t mean immediate changes, but gradually working with communities to find ways to move forward.
Some schools have found that allowing multiple teachers to teach together to a larger group of students allows them to keep the school building open all year round and allows students and teachers to schedule breaks when it suits them. . If a teacher is absent from this arrangement, there is no interruption of continuity for the students. The flexibility provides much more support for parents and reduces the pressure on students as long as they make steady academic progress. And for those families for whom the traditional school calendar works, they can continue to follow it.
With society once again taking for granted that schools are open, it’s time to rethink one of our core assumptions: that school closes in the summer.