Today we started the first day of our school year. The temperature was 80°F, expected to soar to 104°F, presumably including the heat index. Some people might ask why we start so early, in the middle of summer.
Traditional 180-day school calendars have started in August or September and end in May or June to allow children to be available for the spring planting and harvest—in New England! Of course, we’re not in New England and very few of our families farm—and most of those who do have automated much of the process. So why do we continue to use a calendar that we no longer need? Because we always did it that way. Not a particularly good reason.
On the other hand I’m a fan of tradition and consistency, at least when it either makes sense or when no better alternative exists. But our school calendar has some important advantages, for several reasons. First, our children return to school about the same time they start to get bored—three weeks (four in the summer). They return excited after a short break.
Second, our children are far less likely to forget everything they learned the previous year—a phenomenon called “summer learning loss” or “summer slide.” Consequently, our teachers don’t need to spend the first six weeks of the year re-teaching last year’s material.
Third, the “summer slide” affects some children more than others: parents with means counteract the effects with art camp or music camp or STEM came—or anything to keep the child’s brain working. Research studies beginning in the 1970s (yes, we’ve been seeing this effect for decades!) show that children from lower-income families have declining test scores after the summer while students from middle-class families sometimes show an increase. Year-round school takes an important step in levelling the playing field.
Finally (and I say this a bit in jest) fall and spring break, being three weeks in duration, allow families to take vacations when most people with school-age children can’t. My wife and I flew out of Atlanta (busiest airport in the world?) during Fall break last year, taking 15 minutes to get from the doors of the airport to the gate. Almost nobody was there!
From discussion with a number of parents I have the sense that our parents at least have no problem abandoning a foolish consistency.