It is Labor Day weekend, and if you notice your kids looking a little sheepish, you are not alone. They have a great weight hanging over them because the party is over. They know what Labor Day really is: End of Summer Vacation Day. The loud cries of “no more teachers, no more books” that filled the house are now gone. The enthusiasm for things like sand and surf has waned, and the reality of back to school (which signs in retails stores have been reminding them about since the end of July) has slapped them across the face.
Back to school is a rite of passage as much as sleepovers and play dates. It becomes increasingly harder as kids get older to sell them on this as a happy development. My son, backpack ready since early August, is excited to go back to school and start Pre-K. My daughter is starting middle school, as if that is not hard enough, and has reports due on the first day. Did we ever say life was supposed to be easy?
So if it is so hard to get kids back on track after summer, should we jump on the bandwagon and push for school all year long? My answer is a resounding “No” because summer presents a different opportunity for learning; it is a time when a child can be responsible for doing assignments that are due, but it is also a golden moment in their lives when they can enjoy just being kids.
As an educator, I have heard all sorts of arguments for year-round schooling here in the United States. Everyone from President Obama to the school bus driver has weighed in on this issue, and I find that it mostly comes down not to party lines but to this painful truth: most people who want year-round schooling basically want it for child care and not for educational purposes. These same people want extended day schooling and Saturday and Sunday classes too. If we take a step back and look at this issue honestly, we can see how detrimental it is academically and emotionally for everyone involved.
The example of Asian education is often used to make the case for year-round schooling, but this is simply an exaggeration of what is a complex issue. China, Japan, and South Korea may have twelve months of schooling in various forms, but do not go thinking this is the shining star to which we should aspire. First of all, none of these countries is doing better than the U.S.A. and, in fact, their economies are struggling and students there do not fare that much better on exams; furthermore, why do you think that people of means in China, Japan, and South Korea always seek schools in America for their children?
Here in the U.S.A. there are plenty of charter schools that now offer the year-round model and extended day, but there is no overwhelming data to show that students from these schools are doing exceptionally better than their counterparts in schools that still have the old ten months, 180 days of school model. The pressure is on though from parents who seek the best for their children and assume that less is definitely not more. If their children learn so much in six hours a day they reason, why won’t they even learn more if school is eight or nine hours a day? To take it even further, wouldn’t it be better for the kids to also be in school on Saturdays (and maybe even Sundays) in order to learn even more?
The problem here is that children are not robots but living and breathing kids, and the fact is that they don’t need a modern version of Mr. Gradgrind, from Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times, pounding facts and figures into them all day long. That is why long ago it was understood that students need recess and physical education as part of their regular school day. They also need breaks from school during the school year.
We are asking students to do more and more, and even in Pre-K we are pushing academics over play time and nap time. Then there is an array of after school activities that keep many kids busier than corporate executives, with a need for a day planner and a chauffeur too. I recall one time when my daughter was on student council and had meetings to attend and all her other extra-curricular activities. I asked her if she wanted to go visit my father, and she looked at me with the most serious expression and said, “I’ll have to check my schedule.”
Summer vacation offers a respite from the school year that children actually require. We are all guilty of “doing” more than we need or should do, and as a result we have kids going off to school way too early and coming home way too late. They also go from school to activities that tucker them out. Soccer, dancing, piano, gymnastics, swimming, and tennis classes keep my middle schooler in search of a free moment during the week and on weekends. Gone is the time when kids came home from school, had mom make them a snack, and then sat down and did their homework. When you are helping your kid with fractions at 10:30 on a school night, you know she is up too late and so are you.
Here is a revolutionary thought: we don’t need more school hours or school days, we need better instruction during the hours and days we currently have. Nine hours of school a day are definitely not going to help students if there is no quality in the first six. A bloated school day in an effort to appease those who really need child care does a disservice to everyone. The bigger problem is that we are over testing our kids and wasting valuable school time in the process. Cut out all the standardized testing and all the preparation required for students and teachers, and you will see how we find the time for reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Teachers are members of a most noble profession and must be considered as well here. Teachers who are really teaching are mentally and physically exhausted at the end of the day. They stand all the time; they are instructing and observing and tutoring and listening all day long. Asking them to provide quality instruction is a given, but by the seventh hour they will be depleted, and by the ninth hour who wouldn’t expect them to be sitting behind a desk and giving busy work? That is a case of quantity over quality and it makes no sense to anyone except those who need their kids somewhere, anywhere, until they get home from their own busy lives to pick them up.
Summer vacation provides both students and teachers an opportunity for down time in a world where everyone is expected to always be up. I was happy to see my kids sleeping late, enjoying long walks in the woods, swimming as long as they wanted, watching sunsets, and staying up late to see the stars and fireflies. As much as back to school is a rite of passage, so is summer vacation. It is a time when kids don’t have to worry about being somewhere, and a time parents can get to be with them for quality moments that are impossible during school days.
As summer ends I am happy to see my kids go back to school because it is the way of things, but I am also going to miss having them to myself too. Now we return to the daily appointments, the rushed breakfasts and suppers, and the squeezing in of all things into a seemingly too short day. One thing will keep me going these next ten months, and that is knowing I will have summer with them again next year. I hope nothing changes that in their lifetime or in their children’s, because summer vacation is a prerequisite for being able to handle the challenges of the rest of the year.
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