Up until about the eighth grade, the first semester ended about two weeks after we returned from Christmas vacation. Then, some law was passed that allowed school to begin earlier in the year. A few days off and inservice days were shifted to the Spring, and the semesters were separated by winter break. Shortly after I graduated high school, there were grumblings that the school year was starting too soon. The local theme parks and other summer-fun places were complaining that they were left with only a little more than a couple months of business. So they tried to pass another law forcing districts to wait until September to start school. Education experts, in turn, argued that starting the semester earlier in the year was problematic because it would require splitting up the first semester again, which was problematic because of the brain drain that occurs over those two or so weeks.

As I read about this debate, I scratched my head. First, if they forget it over two weeks, then they never really learned it. Second, though, if we’re worried about what happens over two weeks, what about the two to three months of summer?! One of the frustrations for K-12 for me was that how it seemed that half of each year was spent reminding us of what we had learned over the previous year and forgotten over the summer (except that I didn’t forget, which made it even more frustrating). I was reminded of this when I read the following snipit from Reihan Salam’s piece on education:

Alan Krueger, the Princeton economist President Obama tapped to serve as his chief economic adviser, co-authored an important paper with Molly Fifer in 2006 on summer learning loss. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are at a big skills disadvantage in early grades, but that gap grows with each passing year. One reason is that while middle-class kids take part in enriching activities during the summer, ranging from camp to stimulating conversations with educated parents, poor kids are far less likely to do so. With that in mind, Krueger and Fifer called for a program of summer opportunity scholarships paying for enrichment programs during long vacations. It’s an excellent idea that should be pursued.

But what we really need is a cultural shift in which all of us take more responsibility for our education. We are not empty vessels into which credentialed professionals ladle knowledge. Rather, we are a special kind of animal uniquely good at learning through imitation and practice. Somehow we need to find better ways to capitalize on this fact — inside school walls and outside as well.

Or, of course, we could eliminate and/or divide out the “long vacations.”

There are a few arguments against this one. The theme park lobby being one of them. They like having things condensed in a way that allows them to concentrate all of their business over a short period of time (though, apparently, there is such a thing as “too short”). And a lot of leisure activities are season-specific (beaches, for instance). The fall and spring, where at least a few weeks of vacation would be harbored, can be too cold for outdoor swimming (where applicable) but too warm for playing in the snow (where applicable).

The second argument is that a lot of schools up north are not cut out for summers. They have non-existent or insufficient air conditioning. Which strikes me as insane no matter where you live. I hear this in particular about the northeast and that just strikes me as bizarre. They brag about how much money they spend on schools, but don’t shell out for adequate air conditioning systems?

The last argument is that summer school is necessary for some kids to get caught up.

In any event, I am unmoved by these arguments when you consider the degree of brain-drain that does occur over the summer. The third is the only really problematic one, to me. For the students that fall behind, I think the solution to that is with a quarter system where some classes over some quarters are repeated. While useful for shorthand, I think that overall the tendency to delineate too much by “grade level” is problematic. I would prefer more of an assessment/promotion approach on a class-by-class basis. So if we did go to a year-around system, I would support other changes occurring at the same time. Up to and including allowing families to pull their kids out of school for family trips, in the event that the months-off are staggered between the school. Staggering months-off could also go a ways towards alleviating the Disneyland problem.

As for the air conditioner problem, buck up and pay for it.


Category: School

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6 Responses to The Summer Brain Drain

  1. Burt Likko says:

    A quarter system is better all around anyway. First, it blends more nicely with the timing of holidays and other annual events, including (if the policymaker desires) extended time off for the pleasures of a summer vacation. Second, it is easier for students to absorb and retain knowledge presented in smaller rather than larger chunks. Third, many subjects lend themselves nicely to splitting their subject matter into thirds rather than halves as would be done with a semester system — algebra divides well into arithmetic with variables, binomial equations, and Cartesian graphing, for instance. As a bonus, there are more tests in a quarter system so the students and their parents get more diagnostics on their performance.

    As to the “forgetting stuff over the summer,” you hit it right on the head — if they forget something over a six week period, they never really knew it anyway. Cramming for a test does not equal actually learning the material.

    (I bet commenters on LoOG would enjoy this post too.)

  2. Brandon Berg says:

    An assessment/promotion system would be problematic because members of certain demographics would tend to be promoted less than members of certain other demographics. And that would be awkward.

  3. Will Truman says:

    (I bet commenters on LoOG would enjoy this post too.)

    I’ll put it up later in the week.

    Interesting point about the splitting of subjects into thirds. Hadn’t really thought about that aspect.

  4. Will Truman says:

    Brandon, it wouldn’t be much different than summer school or holding a kid back like they do now (though arguably, in the latter case, not often enough).

  5. David Alexander says:

    They brag about how much money they spend on schools, but don’t shell out for adequate air conditioning systems?

    You have to remember that a sizable chunk of our schools date to the first half of the century, or were cheap-post war structures built for rapid growth in student populations. Traditionally, it doesn’t become oppressively hot (read: anything over 90 with high humidity) until May or June and at most it’s a peak day or two until July, and it’s cool by September, so there was never any need to have air conditioning built into the schools or retrofitted. While brand new buildings have AC and some schools have had selected classrooms retrofitted for summer school, and some post-war high schools feature it, there are still plenty of middle and elementary schools, especially in poorer districts that don’t have AC. That doesn’t even include the Catholic schools that don’t feature it. Remember, we’re not like the South where AC flicks on in March, so it’s hard to justify retrofits, especially since it would require window replacement *and* oversized window units in many older schools.

    As for what we do spend our money on, most of that goes to teacher’s salaries and administration. Otherwise, yeah, some school districts have nicer things and more programmes like elementary school Spanish, intensive special education, or special lab programmes in high school for ultra gifted kids, but it isn’t uncommon to hear of teachers making $90K per year after some years in seniority along with the de facto automatic raises in the 4% to 6% range for suburban districts. The urban districts (and Catholic schools) pay less, but it’s not terrible for some of them either after a few years. Mind you, we have high cost of living around here, so we have to pay our government employees more which again pushes our taxes higher, so that $90K really doesn’t buy as much as one may suspect, especially when a good 1500 sq ft home in a good area sells for $400K to $500K.

  6. trumwill says:

    That doesn’t even include the Catholic schools that don’t feature it. Remember, we’re not like the South where AC flicks on in March, so it’s hard to justify retrofits, especially since it would require window replacement *and* oversized window units in many older schools.

    I think that year around schooling provides the justification. I can understand, to some extent, not having them now (we didn’t have AC when we lived in Zaulem), but it isn’t a good reason not to go forward with it.

    Mind you, we have high cost of living around here, so we have to pay our government employees more which again pushes our taxes higher, so that $90K really doesn’t buy as much as one may suspect, especially when a good 1500 sq ft home in a good area sells for $400K to $500K.

    Which, of course, is an argument in favor of policies that promote cheaper cost-of-living, such as not trying to fit millions and millions of people in such a small area :).

    More seriously, I don’t blame governments for spending more on their employees so that they can afford to, you know, live. That being said, I think there is a case to be made that it is part of an upward cycle. Higher salaries push up costs more, which in turn forces the private sector to jack up wages, which in turn forces governments to do the same, and so on. I don’t know what the solution to this is, outside of moving people to Kansas City.

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