The Case for Ending Summer Vacation


Do you know what the “summer slide” is?

No, it’s not a piece of playground equipment.  It’s the fact that kids on average return to school in the fall after summer vacation a full month behind where they were in the spring.  For lots of kids, those already far behind, the “slide” sets the stage for lasting problems in school.  Kids who have more advantages will spend their summers at sleepaway camps, at classes in museums and libraries, on family vacations, at enrichment activities, and exploring their neighborhoods.  Kids without resources will sit behind television screens, inactive and bored, not exploring their neighborhoods because they aren’t safe.

What do you remember about summer vacation?  Sprinklers?  Summer camp?  Long afternoons of hanging out in yards and play grounds?  As a kid, summer meant freedom from routines and structure.  Here are my favorite summertime memories:

wiffle ball - krish


1.  Wiffle ball tournaments: endless afternoons and evenings of elaborately planned games

summer river swim

2.  Family reunions: cousins and aunts and uncles staying for long visits

3.  Afternoon swims in the river:  jumping off rocks and riding down rapids in an inner tube

For many kids across the country, those seemingly endless months of free time and fun — or even summer jobs or chores — may be a thing of the past.  But for how many kids is this type of summer a reality?

Here in New York, there was vigorous debate this winter about a proposal by Governor Andrew Cuomo to extend the school schedule.  According to Cuomo, our current schedule is based on an agricultural society that has no relevance to 21st century family and economic realities, as well as our global competitiveness.

Supporters of changing the school calendar want either to stretch the current calendar (180 days) across the entire academic year– lengthening winter and other breaks and shortening summer vacation — or add more school days to the calendar.  Others want to lengthen the school day.  So far, five states have begun plans to add 300 hours to their school calendars.  1000 districts have already experimented with new schedule models, while others, such as Las Vegas, have gone back to the traditional schedule.

Supporters of more time in school cite many advantages, including:

Help for working families:  Most families now have at least one parent working outside the home.  Parents are forced to find creative solutions for long unsupervised summer breaks, such as babysitters and camps.

Help for poor children:  Disadvantaged children could have more time for academic support and to bridge the racial and class gaps in school performance.  They could also be provided access to nutritional meals and emotional support for more days of the year.

A well-rounded curriculum.  As budget cuts and a focus on standardized tests gut arts, sciences, and physical education programs, more time during the school day could provide a richer school experience for most kids.

Opponents also find many problems with these proposals:

Added expense to already stretched budgets with no clear academic benefits.  Many question the research about the effects of additional time in the academic year, pointing out that high-performing countries such as Finland have less school than Americans do.  And added quantity of schooling may do nothing to improve the quality of American education.

Family time with children.  Many families oppose shortening summer because they argue that it is the only extended time during the year to plan summer vacations and to focus on subjects outside of the school curriculum.

Economic consequences. Much of the American tourist economy is built around the family summer travel season.

This is one of those educational issues that I’m torn about.  For disadvantaged kids, an extended school year or structured programs during the summer may mean the difference between success in school and a continued pattern of underachievement.

But I just can’t wrap my head around the idea of changing summer vacation as we know it.  But am I being nostalgic for my memories of summer that for many — if not most — kids today simply does not exist?  Are our memories of summer keeping us from doing better for many of our kids as a country?

What do you think?  Should summer vacation be shortened?  What is the true “purpose” of summer?


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34 thoughts on “The Case for Ending Summer Vacation”

  1. Thanks for a great post! We live in NY too and I am also a bit mixed on some of the proposals. Although, if the longer school day would mean no more homework I think I could get on board!

    We are very lucky to live in a great district that offers a lot of options for our kids. My boys, both who have learning differences have benefited from extended year programs and reading programs run by the district. We also have a really fun summer camp program that the kids can go to that is very affordable and a music program that is almost free. We also have hired private tutors, and private therapists to help bridge the gap. Summer is a fun time where the kids can spend time working on skills and talents that they don’t have time to do during the year. But I do feel for families that don’t live in great districts and don’t have any additional income to help supplement any type of summer enrichment. There is also an argument to be made for the kind of learning that is not structured, like the time we use to spend on my uncles farm creating cities out of hay bales with our cousins, no parents around and you knew what time lunch and dinner was because a big bell would be rung. So, I guess I have taken a lot of space to say I have mixed feelings!! Lol! Thanks for making me think!!

    1. I do too. Summer was such a huge part of my childhood. And it was the kind of unstructured time that you had at your uncle’s farm that are the strongest memories. But maybe someday we’ll be able to come up with options for families that don’t leave some kids behind, including things you mentioned: tutoring, reading program, extended year options.

  2. I, too, am torn. As a former teacher in a school that had a high population of kids from low socioeconomic families, I can definitely see the arguments in favor of it. However, as a mom now of a rising 6th grader, 3rd grader, and 1st grader, I value our summers and cannot imagine them going to school any more than they already do. I also see the $$ concerns – teachers here (in NC) do not get paid nearly what they are worth. If they were required to work longer, they would have to get a very significant pay raise or many would leave the profession. Then, there are the operational costs, etc.

    A few schools in our state operate on a year-round schedule – basically they go to school for 9 weeks and then get 3 weeks off. In the “summer” they get a 6 week break. These are public schools, but are considered “magnet” schools and attendance at them is optional. There are very few of them, but perhaps offering something akin to this – an option for those who need it most – would be a solution.

    1. Yes, maybe there can be more of a balance, like a lot of the magnet schools have. And we definitely would have to change how teachers are paid too. Good points!

  3. Ever since I was 12, I never cared for the long three-month summer vacation to be quite honest. I remember, every summer, I would write everyday in something just to keep me occupied! Sure, it was fun to hang out with friends, swim in the pool, etc.; however, I believe it is time to give our future generations a better chance with school (especially for the underachieving kids). If kids have more academic support with their teachers, especially when parents are now working full time because of the economy, I think it would be best to have a longer school year (but not too long) and maybe an extra hour a day at school for teachers to give students more support and help.

  4. As a former teacher and a mom of a kindergartner and preschooler, I would say that before I would ever agree to longer school days and school year, traditional schools would have to change its structure dramatically. If it were to stay or continue on the path we are going with a misguided idea that all learning is structured, standardized, and passive then no way! Of course there are great examples out there of schools who realize rigor also means relevance and relationships, and create environments where all kids’ needs are met. But, let’s face it, this is not the status quo, has never been, and likely will not be in the near future. I agree that in its current set-up, school days could be a bit longer if there were no homework. I hate homework more than my child does. Now, in regards to children in low socio-economic areas–longer school days/year could be helpful in a variety of ways, but the same argument goes–the traditional school structure must change! It has yet to truly meet the needs of these children and their families, and I don’t see it changing. If we can get kids to school, engaged and learning within the hours currently set, huge strides would be made. If we can improve family-school relationship, strides would be made. Longer days/year is too simplistic for a large, complex problem of underachievement. Nonetheless, I do see it in our future.

    1. It does seem to come back to homework for a lot of families. That’s what burns them out from the rest of the school year. I agree that it seems like we’re not meeting the needs of most families, those from disadvantaged backgrounds as well as kids who are overwhelmed by homework and pressure.

  5. I have great memories of summer vacation much like yours! There are valid points to both arguments. I think that shorter breaks would be ideal. My son is good for about a month and then summer vacation is a struggle. We live in rural Iowa, so at least we have the advantage of being able to be outside!

    1. I started getting excited for the new school year sometime in late July or early August as a kid. I remember they would mail us our notification for our new homerooms, and I would start wanting school again. I agree. Summers that are a bit shorter would be a good place to start.

  6. I LOVE the idea. Captain and I have actually talked about finding a school district that does this, but the only ones we’ve heard of thus far are in California and it’s just too expensive for us. I guess they extend the school year and take 2-3 week semester breaks, instead of a week here and there throughout the year and 3 months in the summer. 3 weeks is long enough for an extended family vacation, but not so long that everyone gets *overly* sick of each other.

    1. I can see how 2-3 weeks breaks throughout the school year would be even more difficult to plan for and arrange childcare than one long block of summer. If those schools had little mini “camps” during those vacations that would provide a break from academics, that would be a good option.

  7. Such a thought-provoking post as always! I had no idea this debate was going on in NY (where I am). I too would have a tough time doing with a shorter summer vacation. It seems too short as it is and I agree that the U.S. tourist economy is built around summer vacay…perhaps we need to look into better, state-funded types of programs for the disadvantaged kids during the summer so they are in active, learning types of environments like their more advantaged peers.

  8. I have fond and not-so-fond memories of summer break. Being outdoors was fun but I also really missed school (we lived in the boonies, with no neighbors around to play with and a tight budget that allowed for only 1 or 2 weeks of summer camp). While I agree that kids (and adults) need breaks, three months is excessive.

    As part of a family with dual full-time working parents, the idea of three months of no school seems so out of touch with the reality of life. I would gladly pay more in taxes so that school went a full year. With more down-time during the days for recess, unstructured time, less homework, etc. I also like the idea of being able to go on family vacations other times than just the summer – if each school took breaks at different times over the course of the year, for example.

    Great post!

  9. My husband and I are both teachers, and he fully agrees that school should be year-round, as it is in the academic interests of kids. I’m sure he would also agree with your arguments about how the summer slide is worse for socio-economically disadvantaged kids. I, however, love love love the long summer ~ like you, I have so many fond memories of neighborhood play, family vacations, summer sports, swimming, etc., and I love that our two-teacher-parent family has a whole three months (okay, 10 weeks!) at home together. So hard to balance our personal wishes, childhood memories, and cultural/educational needs! Thoughtful post.

  10. Cannot even begin to tell you how much we have this conversation!! We are 100% in favor of a year-round school schedule, which still provides plenty of breaks for kids but also keeps them learning! This is a GREAT post.-The Dose Girls

  11. This is so interesting, Jessica! We actually had this conversation recently with my mom, a retired teacher who was NOT in favor of year-round schools. I often think about how parents who both work full-time handle summer- and I guess the answer is summer camp. I work part-time, so I am able to do a mixture of staying home and utilizing camps while I am teaching. I think having longer breaks throughout the year would be just as challenging for working parents, to be honest. I also think that, while it is a challenge to deal with kids who have “slid” in their learning over the summer, it would be frustrating to return from a handful of 2-4 week breaks throughout the year, as kids would still need to be refreshed a bit. This is a tough one, and like you, I can’t quite imagine not having summer vacation. Though, let’s be honest- as parents- is summer really a “vacation?” Not so much.

  12. Great food for thought, as always. I am going to hedge, because I haven’t thought about it enough, and say that I agree with your conclusion: from a public/society standpoint, I completely see the arguments for a year-round school day. On the other hand, I can’t imagine not having had those breaks as a kid.

    My mom is a teacher and she always says by the end of the year the kids are just bouncing off the walls. Could young kids really handle year-round school? Where is the space to just be a kid?

  13. Well, I hate to disagree, but I do disagree with you on this issue. This is another reason I’m so happy I homeschool — the pubic system can extend their year or go year round, and it doesn’t affect my child. I feel really sorry for the children. The way I see it, your fundamental flaw is the assumption that the goal for the child is ALWAYS education, and that dropping back a bit over the summer is a negative thing. The goal (as I see it) for the child is broader than that, and the activities of the summer are an essential, intrinsic part of life. I wouldn’t strip my daughter’s life of her summer activities (and some of them may look like “non-activities”) for anything! She gets extensive relaxed reading time. She gets lots of outdoor time. She gets camp. She gets more sleep. She gets time with siblings home from college.
    I realize there are kids with no parent home who can’t even go out the door all day, and I’m very sorry for that. I wish their lives were different. But that doesn’t mean my daughter’s life has to be damaged so she can be on a par with them.

    The whole “agricultural culture” argument doesn’t quite make sense to me. The times when farmers would have needed their kids’ help would be in the spring (prepping land and planting) and esp. harvest in the fall. There are some crops that come due in the summer, but most of them are small, garden-type crops. Berries and some early vegs. Anyway, I’ve always thought we get summer off b/c it was the time when it was hardest to have kids in a building all day, before air conditioning. When you’re from the South, you think this way 🙂

    1. As always, a thoughtful response! And as always, I don’t think the solution will be the same for every kid or for every family. My childhood summers didn’t include any “school” activities, and I think it would be a wonderful summer experience for any kid. But the truth is that for millions of kids, they will never live that life. They don’t live in a world with mountain streams, parents who cook them three meals a day, or even a place where it’s safe to play during daylight hours.

  14. This debate has been going on in the UK for the last year as well. The arguments for both sides are very similar to what you are describing in your post. To be honest with you I am torn… On the one hand, summer holidays can be a burden to a family with two-working parents. Also entertaining children is a hard and rather expensive job. But there is a part of me that is nostalgic of my own childhood and my idyllic long summer holidays and the space I was given to explore, play and be free… Maybe a lighter summer curriculum providing plenty of outdoor experiences could bridge the two sides of the argument.

  15. Really thought provoking and I can see both sides of it. I don’t really have an opinion…mostly because what I think about it doesn’t matter right now in our home. My pre-school aged son will actually receive partial schooling this summer (a 2+ week break, then back with shortened hours for 5 weeks and then have a 3.5 week break) and I’m actually glad. I do have to admit that I wouldn’t be as pleased were he not on the autism spectrum – we fear regression in a way that parents of typical children are not required to. I do miss the lazy summers of my youth and hope that one day, my son will have those as well. In the meantime, we’ll work to make the most out of the breaks he has.

  16. As a working elementary teacher and a mama, I have very mixed feelings! I think some families have wonderful active, educational, family activities during the summer. Those are things that should continue.

    My District gets out the end of June and kids return the end of August. However, starting the 2nd week of August, I am back in my classroom…moving furniture, taking provided classes, learning newly adopted curriculum, and planning and prepping those things that take awhile to get in place.

    My students could not do much longer of a day (they already go home tired) but maybe 15-20 mins more.

    My own son w/social and sensory issues, need the recovery time that summer provides despite the fact that it does create issues w/his working parents.

    Obviously..,I’m torn!

    1. So am I! I don’t think the solution – especially for kids with social and sensory issues — is just to add hours to the day and weeks to the school calendar. Parts of the day that use different parts of the mind and body — physical activity, quiet time — should be part of the solution, not just more and more hours of teacher-directed lessons.

  17. The schools I worked in always were hit with the summer slide because children were not exposed to academics/ the English language over the summer. It created strained relationships between grades because teachers wanted to blame the lower grade for the problem. I would look at data from the prior year and then look at the data I collected at the beginning of the year and wonder how a kid could fall so far. Our district considered longer school hours and my question, as a teacher, focused on how we would be using that extra time and if kids could handle more work time considering how hard we were pushing them in the hours we already had.
    That being said, kids need to have time to play because they are KIDS. However, the ways in which kids are allowed to play/ how they are treated at home can range from wonderful to terribly permissive or neglectful. While I worry what my students are doing when I’m not caring for them is not the place of education to treat. We cannot stretch the school year just because children need more love and care that they aren’t getting at home. That’s a cultural shift that needs to be made.
    Sorry. As always you touched on a critical point in education. Which means great post as always.

    1. I agree that it’s not the place of teachers to worry all the time — nights, summers, weekends — about how all students spend their time outside of school. It’s a societal responsibility, not just for teachers. The solution to all components of our educational crisis is not just to push everything onto the backs of teachers. That much is for sure!

  18. You know, I never really thought about it until I read this. I think it may be good to extend the school year. The pros and cons to both sides are very real, but I do think that disadvantaged kids & families get the short end of the stick. I’m all about helping those in need and I don’t think it’s to any sacrifice to others. Interesting debate!

  19. I never really thought about it until I read this. The pros and cons seem relevant on both sides but I am all about helping disadvantaged kids & families, and if extending the school year helps them then why not. I don’t think it impacts others enough to warrent anything different. It’s a hard change though either way and interesting debate!

  20. Funny story about wiffle balls.
    We had a BBQ for my son’s 4th birthday last year. We bought a plastic bat, tee, and wiffle balls. Well my brother who is 26 decided that he should try and rock one over the house…he planted it in my son’s face. He had the holes marked in his face.
    My brother will never live that one down.

    1. I had a few wiffle ball injuries in my day! You can really hit those things hard… And I can see how they can create very distinctive marks 🙂

  21. I live in Washington state and I base a lot of my feelings on this subject on the weather. Here, if the kids had to go to school during the summer, they would miss out on the best weather we have all year. That said, I do think the school year could be tweeked to go into the beginning of July, since the weather isn’t truly nice until after the 4th (it’s a strange phenomenon). I do think a bit longer of a school day, even just an extra hour, would be beneficial.

  22. Really great post with compelling arguments on both sides. I’m somewhere in the middle. A break is nice but the summer is WAY TOO LONG!

  23. This is a great post, I really don’t think that all children should have a lengthened school year. Of course, I homeschool so we are learning all the time. I do think there should be something available within the school district for children of parents who work, or disadvantaged students. Maybe one school in the district stays open, and it is voluntary? That’s my vote.

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