Eric Stinton: Kids And Teachers Love Summer Vacation, But Does It Make Sense? - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.

Opinion article badgeIt’s common in education circles to discuss what school should and could be. A lot of the pieces of today’s education system have remained in place for a century, while American life has changed drastically around it.

One of the largest variables we can tweak is the schedule of the school year. For most schools in Hawaii, that means rethinking the two-month stretch of summer break.

Schools across the country pivoted to a long summer break around the end of the 19th century for various reasons. In his book “School’s In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools,” education historian Kenneth Gold traces the confluence of factors that led to a national adoption of a long summer vacation.

Students in certain rural areas were needed to work on farms – though this point is often overstated if not misstated – while schools in urban areas saw a pattern of sharply declining attendance during summer months due to sweltering heat and poor ventilation in school buildings. At the same time, public education advocates sought to standardize school calendars in a push to professionalize the job of teaching, while elected officials worried about the taxpayer burden of maintaining schools year-round.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the hodgepodge of disparate school calendars across the country had almost uniformly moved to a school year with two to three months off during summer. By then, Hawaii’s territorial government was already in lockstep with what was happening on the mainland.

Absent from those reasons, you may have noticed, was the consideration of what was best for student learning. If the purpose of an education system is to optimize student achievement and wellbeing, it’s sensible to see in summer break some fat to potentially trim.

It seems every year reignites a similar discussion about the so-called “summer slide,” the learning loss attributed to long stretches without school. There is evidence that it’s a real phenomenon to some extent, particularly acute for lower-income families, and most teachers will tell you that every year begins with at least some review of content that “should have” been learned the previous year.

Maui Baldwin HS
Even if students didn’t go to school in the summer, teachers, if they were paid more, could make good use of the time. Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2021

But it’s not entirely clear if, given the same number of school days in a year, one allocation of break time yields higher academic achievement than another. There are substantive challenges to several “summer slide” claims, many of which hold true in my personal experience.

I assess my students’ reading and math skills at the beginning of every quarter, and I can point to examples of students every year who score higher in the first week back from summer break compared to other quarters. There are a lot of reasons why this could be, but the main takeaway is that we don’t have neat, clear data to support one side over another.

But even if there aren’t cut-and-dry educational benefits to changing the break schedule, a shorter summer break tends to ease the burdens of child care and meal services, increasingly essential duties of schools now. This is especially helpful for low-income families.

That’s a valid reason, but then why not simply extend the school year in general? That would provide even more child care coverage, and would likely increase academic achievement; most of the dozen countries that outperform America in reading and math – though notably not all of them – spend more time at school.

But is anyone – students, parents or teachers – lobbying for less time off and more time in the classroom? Summer is the best part of the school year like lunch is the best part of the school day. A long vacation can be especially enriching for families able to travel, attend camps or devote time to sports, crafts or hobbies. Even if there are social and academic benefits to longer school years, it’s doubtful there’s enough political will to overcome the inertia of our cultural preferences, and the hazy freedom of a long, hot summer is entrenched in American self-conception.

Recently, Mililani Middle School moved away from a year-round, multi-track schedule to a traditional one, partly because it built new facilities that made it possible to have all students on campus at the same time, but also to accommodate families who also had students in elementary and high schools that did not have a similar schedule. Unless every school moves in unison, switching schedules can cause more headaches than it alleviates.

Throw in other complicating factors like transportation arrangements and the material realities that not every school has adequate air conditioning, and it seems unlikely that Hawaii schools will see any major shifts away from the long summer break model, at least for students. But what about teachers?

I can’t imagine having fewer days off is a popular position among teachers, and not just because we’d all prefer to have more time at the beach or with loved ones. Having summers off (as well as other regular breaks) is one of the major perks we can dangle to attract people to a low-pay/high-stress job with a high turnover rate.

Carving out time in summer would allow schools and teachers to go deeper, with more focus and intent.

But as someone who enjoys teaching at least a few weeks of summer school every year, I think there’s room to consider some options for requiring teachers to spend a certain amount of time in school during summer, while increasing salaries commensurately. I don’t think I’d be alone in preferring an extra month’s pay for a month of professional development and prep time without students around.

During that time, teachers could meet to go over data, including how to interpret and apply that data to our teaching. Teachers across grade levels could meet to plan for smoother transitions year-by-year, which is especially challenging for standalone intermediate schools. We could have senior teachers work directly with new teachers to prepare for the upcoming school year.

We could organize in-depth professional development sessions, differentiated for teachers at different stages in their careers, to improve best practices in content areas and social-emotional learning. Schools could focus on creating and implementing a strong school-wide culture, which is arguably the most effective thing a school can do to improve student achievement.

To be sure, schools already do a lot of these things, but usually in occasional meetings throughout the school year, too sporadic to be effective when the immediate demands of the job require most of our attention. Carving out time in summer would allow schools and teachers to go deeper, with more focus and intent.

Unless we think the way things are right now is the pinnacle of our collective capacity to organize an education system, we should be interrogating its integrity and challenging its assumptions. Now, during summer and after Covid-19 revealed how malleable our system can be, is the time to be thinking about what we can change, and planning for how and when we can put that change in motion.


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About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.


Latest Comments (0)

Hawaii government schools have long tried to make up for quality of days with quantity of days - and it hasn't worked - we need to laser focus on improving fundamentals through competition via parent choice.

Sally · 1 month ago

Not so much about making sense as it is hurting both the teacher's and the kids. With what's been going on with the Pandemic forcing in home schooling which studies show did more damage than good and then all the holiday's and all the other delay's such as weather crashing the party that no one seems to think about . I'm one that agrees with Summer Vacation, but should there be exceptions to what I mentioned about ?? Maybe shorten the time of Summer Vacations, When I went to school many years ago on the mainland, we had " Snow Days" to where if the school's were forced to close more than " X" amount of times through out the school year, those day's would be made up by the shortening of our Summer Vacation time. Maybe something like that should be considered, because I seriously don't think the Summer break needs to be as long as it is now, because to me it's just feeding into many of the problems/troubles kids get into now. Besides with Hawaii's ranking in the National rankings I think our kids and teachers need more time together.

unclebob60 · 1 month ago

You would be surprised how many teachers think itʻs ok to take a week off from school to go to Disneyland, Vegas, school reunions and high school football games off islands, drop off and settle in their teens in college, cruises , visit family/ grandchildren off island etc. This kind of absences could affect the amount of student learning. Also, when students have a teacher from off island who is not embracing of the local culture of the community, especially for rural areas, it can impede learning. Students can tell how much time a teacher invests in them by how much attention is given to assessment of assignments in a timely manner, challenging assignments that promote effort and mastery of certain skills.

Hauulagin · 1 month ago

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