Last week students across Arkansas returned to the classroom, and the heavens approved. The clouds huddled close and offered the state a fill of rain. Cooler temperatures kept new school duds light and loose.
The man-made change of “season” — summer to school year — seemed to be accompanied by a very real one.
Not so for a select student demographic at places such as KIPP Delta Preparatory Academy in Helena-West Helena and eStem Public Charter School in downtown Little Rock. Oh, it rained there, too, but these schools opened days, even weeks ago.
Summer vacation? What is that?
“I didn’t get a summer vacation,” 17-year-old Cassie Butler of eStem complained on Wednesday. “I just went to a church convention.”
“Even though parents say that we need to focus on our work every day, we get that, but we still want our freedom,” said Collin Scott, 14.
The last full summer break Abigail Harris, 16, had was nearly a decade ago, she says — before third grade, before her parents enrolled her at the brand new charter school at the corner of Louisiana and Third streets in Little Rock. And what did she do? She can’t remember. But she can quickly recount the three separate camps and trips she made this year in her abbreviated hiatus in June and July.
“I don’t really mind the short break, maybe because it’s all I’ve ever known.”
“I grew up in the 80s,” said John Bacon, eStem’s director, “and summer vacation was always 10 or 12 weeks, this extended break from school, and honestly, I think it’s pretty similar” still.
That is, school calendars continue to excuse students for nearly three months each summer.
“When we wrote this charter, we looked at some research and knew that that extended summer break really results in some learning loss. You know, you’ve heard anecdotal stories of teachers for years saying, ‘I had to re-teach everything in August that we thought we taught in May.’ So, what we tried to do is to look at what’s an appropriate time in summer to give our kids and our teachers a break, but to not have that kind of summer learning loss. What we figured out is it’s about a five to six week break.”
It turns out even summer break is subject to upward inflationary pressure. In just eight years, the actual summer break at eStem is up to 53 days — more than seven full weeks. (An eStem student spends no more days in school than most other students in the state. The school has a built-in fall recess of one week, and another full week off for Thanksgiving.)
What has happened to year-round school? Gen X-ers like Bacon grew up under threat of a year-round school calendar that would mimic the average adult’s work schedule. That is, 48 to50 weeks on, 2 to 4 off. After all, how else would gentle America keep pace with the Russians? Or the Japanese?
Or the Chinese?
HOUR BY HOUR
Two summers ago, the Pew Research Center compared American kids’ time in class against other countries’. The Education Commission of the States collected the data domestically, while the international totals came from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Turns out, American school kids spend quite a lot of time in the classroom.
Consider — a U.S. primary school student spent about 943 hours in class in 2011, more than all but a few developed nations.
Know who spent less? A lot less? The Russians (470).
Meanwhile, U.S. high school students spent more than 1,000 hours in class. That’s fifth out of 33 countries counted for the survey. (China and India are absent, as is the entire continent of Africa.)
Know who spent considerably more time in front of Teacher? About 150 hours more?
The Mexicans (1,167).
COMFORT THE ARITHMETICALLY AFFLICTED
Should these big hours comfort American parents and employers who more often find themselves frustrated by American students’ standings in international testing surveys?
The most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results put U.S. students below the global average of 65 countries in mathematics and roughly median in science and reading literacy.
“It’s very popular to think that the solution to shortcomings in outcomes in school is more school,” says Jay Phillip Greene, distinguished professor of education policy and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.
Greene’s work has measured and explored the pedagogical value of field trips, specifically “artsy” treks to places like museums and live theater. In 2014 he and two colleagues published the results of a quantitative study of the impact of visiting Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
“One argument against [these trips] is it takes away from classroom instruction,” he says, which “I see as a similar kind of argument” as the one made against summer vacation by advocates of year-round school.
Greene and his colleagues surveyed about 11,000 students. Half had visited the museum (several weeks earlier) and half hadn’t. The results are enumerated in Education Next, but museum-going students displayed a bit more tolerance and historical empathy, and quite a bit more interest in returning to Crystal Bridges and visiting other cultural institutions. What’s more, these differences were greater if the students were low income, and greater still if they were rural.
Should we eliminate summer vacation?
“People who are drawn to this solution tend to be people who liked school and did well in school and may have wanted to be in school more.”
“Kids who are not doing well in school don’t feel the same way, and so, from their perspective, incarcerating them more in something that they don’t like, don’t understand, and from which they don’t think they’re benefiting, is probably not a good idea.”
Instead, summers should be filled with alternative educational opportunities. Camps, clubs, practices, workshops, trips for language immersion or religious missions — even work. After all, isn’t that what elite schools and wealthy families do with their charges?
“Rich folks could enroll their kids in school in the summer. They don’t, generally. They send their kids to summer camp. They go on family vacations. Why do they do those things? They might know something. Don’t undersell them. They have a lot invested in this.”
And the gap is widening. In “Investing in Children: Changes in Parental Spending on Children, 1972-2007” (Demography, Feb. 2013), Sabino Kornrich and Frank Furstenberg found that in the early 1970s, the top 10 percent of Americans spent more than $2,800 on each child’s “enrichment” activities and opportunities, while the bottom 10 percent spent more than $600. By 2006-2007, the same wealthy Americans were spending more than $6,500 each year on each kid, while the same poor Americans were spending just $750.
Of course, this is also “the best argument for more school” for poor and working class families, Greene admitted — school’s the best enrichment these kids get. While wealthy kids go to relatively safe places with structured activities and regular, rounded meals in summer, poorer kids are more likely unsupervised, their surroundings less enriching, their diets a grab-bag of ready calories.
“That’s true. This leads to a well established empirical finding, which is called summer melt — that low-income kids lose more academic content over the summer than do wealthier kids, because the lower income kids are not engaged in activities that help reinforce and build on their academic content.”
What we need to do, he said, is offer more organized and subsidized summer enrichment opportunities.
YEAR-ROUND, NOT YEAR-LONG
Let’s come around to the irony of this whole school v. summer debate: No one’s actually arguing for year-round school, not even the National Association of Year-Round Education.
David Hornak is the executive director of the newly reconstituted group. Founded in 1980 by his predecessor, Charles Ballinger, the association went dark a few years ago. Last year, Hornak resuscitated it, but the closest they have to a brick-and-mortar command center is his office inside the Holt (MI) School District administration building.
“The term ‘year-round’ frightens people. I completely agree with you that, if a child hears ‘year-round,’ a child is going to say, ‘Oh my gosh. My mom and dad are always working. I’m going to be in school 300-plus days a year’ No, that’s not the case. We are advocates for repurposing the 180 school days that the majority of American schools are open across the calendar year, and in that, reducing the amount of summer to no longer than six weeks.”
No “year-round.” Got it?
What NAYRE is advancing is something Hornak calls a “balanced” calendar. In a traditional school year, the biggest break is summer, 10 to 12 weeks, followed by the year-end holiday, two to three weeks. In the balanced calendar, summer is 30 days, and every other season contains a 15-day break. Other holidays (including three days for Thanksgiving) would be observed.
“The research in the past was somewhat conflicted regarding the balanced calendar. The data was saying, you know, there wasn’t a huge benefit for being on the balanced calendar. However, the most recent data coming out of research studies is completely convincing. It is really focused on the fact that kids on the balanced calendar are retaining more information than their counterparts on the traditional calendar, and we’re spending boatloads of money trying to remediate the gaps that we in fact are creating when we have kids operate on the traditional.”
TIME BETTER SPENT BETTERING THEMSELVES
Kennedy Yancy is a 17-year-old eStem senior who wishes she had a longer, more traditional summer vacation so that she could work on her passion — dance.
“You can’t, I guess, perfect your skills. So, like, I love to dance, but, it gets shortened down because I have to come back to school.”
She wants to dance, not bear down on this college preparatory curriculum. Her school’s seven-week break snuffs out some training opportunities. Does Yancy’s preference sound frivolous? Consider this — Yancy’s dream is to teach dance, to be a small business owner and open a studio, and she’s exploring college options primarily on the accomplishment and accessibility of their pompom and drill teams.
“The learning experience [at eStem] is way better. We’re a head start from everyone else … but I wish we could get that time back sometimes,” she says.
Compare Yancy’s self-evaluation to Abigail Harris. Remember her? The 16-year-old who can’t remember what she did the last time she had a traditional summer holiday?
Is she also missing those summertime opportunities to explore her passions?
“Absolutely not. My parents, my family, they pack everything into that short summer break. Say, last summer, I went to my summer camp for two weeks. I went to Guatemala for one week on a mission trip, and then I participated in a theater academy for three weeks at the Arts Center.”
Bacon, eStem’s director, would say these two students offer a peek at the antipodes facing educators and education — the disparity in resources, direction and student ambition that bears on any school trying to shape a calendar and a curriculm.
School, not summer, should be central to students’ lives, and the shorter the break, the more “regular” it feels.
“When you watch, on the first day of school around here, it’s not like a normal, you know, beginning of a school year where they’ve been gone so long and everybody has missed their school friends. It’s just been long enough that we’ve had a break and they’re rested, but it hasn’t been so long that they [can’t] come right back and, they just pick right back up with school.”