The 19th century reasoning for why your young students stay home all summer
I can still remember the feeling of excitement and relief as a school year ended. Classrooms were dismantled, work was taken home, and schedules and obligations started to fray in a delightful warm-up to summer vacation. I have to remind myself of these feelings, because as I witness my daughter wrap up second grade, things feel very different from my perspective. How is my kid this old already? What will happen with her friendships over the summer? What’s she going to do all summer Why is summer vacation even a thing?!
Where and when class was in session
One of the long-standing myths about summer vacation in the United States is that it was borne out of the same agrarian thinking that gave us other antiquated mistakes, like elections being held on Tuesdays. Kids never needed summers off to go help on the farm, and in rural communities the school year was actually limited to summers and winters. That way, the whole family would be available when it counted— spring and fall. It was a shorter school year overall, but it theoretically got the job done, especially for folks planning sticking with farming as they grew up.
Kids in urban areas didn’t have this pressure, and so technically they could enjoy free childcare, er, education, 248 days a year. However, attendance wasn’t mandatory, and kids would miss random portions of the curriculum as result. Summertime added a bit of additional discomfort, thanks to the way cities trap and hold heat. In the 19th century, families with the means to travel would take the kids out of town to flee the heat, although overall attendance wasn’t much worse than other times of year. Still, the inconsistency led to some school years being reduced by arbitrary amounts.
Standardizing the two schedules
So what was the motivation for our current schedule? There was talk about giving urban students’ brains a rest, while also looking for a way to beef up supposedly weakened physiques. Rural kids supposedly needed to work their brains more regularly, setting up an arrangement where both schedules could meet in the middle. More concretely, there was a desire to standardize the school year, and so districts targeted 180 days of school, with a big break in the middle when school houses were hot. This was complemented by emerging eight-hour workdays that meant that leisure time around the family wasn’t going to be so hard to come by. Since then, summer vacation has been praised as a block of time that can be potentially unstructured, or just the opposite- a chance to take on entry-level jobs before really entering the workforce.
This schedule is of course, not universal. Other countries around the world often keep kids in school more regularly, with moderate breaks between each seasonal quarter. This is often praised by teachers, because a few months away from the classroom seems to cost kids educational progress. Without academic reinforcement, taking summer off often means that fall is spent refreshing students on the previous spring’s lessons.
Source: Agrarian roots? Think again. Debunking the myth of summer vacation’s origins by Saskia de Melker and Sam Weber, PBS Newshour