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17 June 2009 4:01 PM

Education

Don't Kill Summer Vacation

Thinking Big is pleased to announce its first blogger on blogger argument, and against a worthy adversary: The Atlantic's Conor Clarke. Let me assure you that he is an intelligent and friendly sort, even if he does want to rob school children of summer break. If he gets his way, I propose that the following example be added to SAT prep books: "Grinch is to Christmas as ______ is to summer vacation." It's an illustration that won't leave any child behind.

Mr. Clarke initially argued for year long school here. His position: All the reasons we initially adopted summer vacation don't apply any longer. American kids score lower on standardized tests than kids from countries where everyone attends school more days each year. Even within the United States, summer vacation exacerbates the inequitable outcomes between rich kinds and poor kids, because the former enjoy edifying summer experiences, while the latter do not. Thus, we should say goodbye to summer vacation.

In the name of countless children nationwide -- and adopting this as my theme song -- I attacked his anti-summer jeremiad here, and sent reinforcements at his flank here. My campaign employed several weapons as arguments: 

The wealthy and middle class kids who enjoy edifying summer experiences ought not lose out on them; the poor kids in the worst schools probably won't benefit much from spending several more months in the classroom; summer vacations are incomparably enjoyable periods in the lives of many people; and there is more to life than test scores.

In his most recent post, Mr. Clarke reasserts his focus on matters of equity -- if better off people want summer vacation they can attend private school, he says -- and tries to find common ground as follows:

Let's assume we are allocating two goods -- test scores and vacation days -- among all the schoolchildren in the country. A Pareto improvement would be to increase the test scores without decreasing the vacation days, or vice-versa. So, here's an easy way to do that: We spread the current number of vacation days out over the course of the year. Since big problem with summer vacation from a educational outcome perspective is that it increases "summer learning loss" by putting the vacation days all in one big chunk, the low-hanging fruit would be to break the summer into small pieces to increase test scores.
Obviously I like that approach better than abolishing summer and decreasing overall vacation days. But the core issue between Mr. Clarke and I -- and the one I'd like to see him address -- is why we would assume two goods, test scores and vacation days, and weigh them against one another. Oh, I understand why that might be valuable as a hypothetical matter to clarify a narrow part of an argument.

It seems to me, however, than Mr. Clarke is so enamored of test scores, and so desirous of increasing them, that he fails to adequately consider the myriad other goods involved in ordering our lives, the schedules of our children, and our educational system. It would be as though I said that kids in certain other countries with fewer school days score much higher on an index of how long they get to spend with their mothers, fathers, and siblings, and that familial time together is a valuable thing -- therefore we ought to reduce the school year by half. Quite a few assumptions are implicit in my argument, aren't they?

In the same way, Mr. Clarke assumes a lot when he presumes to reorder our school calendar for the sake of test scores. I am here to challenge those assumptions. In order to clarify my contentions, a few questions: you presume that because the one thing that you can quantify -- test scores -- are harmed by summer vacation, then the institution should be abolished, but have you made any attempt to catalog what is gained from summer vacation? Might those things be less quantifiable than test scores, but nevertheless important and worth preserving? Is there clear evidence that the test scores of children in various nations bear on how those nations fare in competition against one another -- and even if there is, why should we presume that maximizing our economic competitiveness is the appropriate goal of schooling and societal schedules? Have you made any attempt to anticipate the unintended consequences of abolishing summer vacation, or assess the likelihood that it would come about?

That's enough for now, though I could pose additional questions. The essential point would remain that I believe summer vacation to be valuable for several complicated reasons, many of which I've discussed, and I am not inclined to give those things up when the main argument for doing so is merely that it would improve outcomes and equity as measured by test scores. Other measures matter! A persuasive argument for abolishing summer vacation would take them into account, and argue that the gains of year-round-school justify their loss.   

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Comments (2)

As a retired community-college English teacher, I am well-acquainted with how little happens in high school. The time students now spend there, in my experience, shows almost no results; spending more time there is no guarantee that anything different or better will occur.

People who have very little to do with "objective" tests have a touching faith in standardized testing, which proves nothing more than that the test-taker has passed that particular test. If anything at all goes on currently in high school, it is likely to be teaching directly to the test(s). Anything not on tests just doesn't matter (the arts); tests are mostly biased to factual content and rote memorization. Obviously, regurgitation rather than thinking is the aim of standardized "objective" testing.

Nothing really will change in education until or unless there are changes in what education is understood to be, helping a student learn to think and to analyze. Public education is usually seen by those running the system as a process, almost like a factory production line, with the tests at the end for quality control. Teacher education tends to be focused this way. And many parents--except maybe those in superior, expensive school districts or in urban ghetto/barrio districts--aren't much bothered by educational deficiencies.

I do believe in "creative loafing" for summer, in some form. How about time for the kid to do what he or she wants, not always what adults have deemed necessary, scheduled within an inch of their lives. Why must everything be a so-called educational experience? Growing up, there wasn't money for me to go to camp except once, yet I lazed around, partially bored, found things to do, friends to hang out with.

Soon enough, the adult world claims the kids into a rigid schedule. Why not let them play a bit, while they can?

A postscript to the above: a basic assumption behind the push for the longer school year/day is that education happens only in school. All of our experience proves otherwise.

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