It’s All The Farmers’ Fault…Again!

It’s that time of year again. A time of simultaneous joy and dread, elation and despair, all depending on which side of the fence you sit.

Summer. Break.

That too-long but oh-so-short hiatus in school schedules and homework, book reports and science projects, early mornings and jam-packed afternoons. It’s weeks upon weeks of bare feet, swimming pools, and crafts, intermixed with complaints of “I’m so bored!”, “It’s too hot to go outside!”, and “How come we never go anywhere fun?”

As a parent, I love the extra time with my children, unrestrained by the calendar or the clock, when we can carry ourselves on a whim and lose ourselves in an afternoon of blissful nothing-ness.

On the other hand…

On the other hand, summer break is long. And hot. And filled with the pressure to fill each day with experience after experience in order to carpe diem and make sure their education isn’t limited to the classroom. And as I mentally prepare for the next three months, I found myself wondering….why? 

Why is summer break even a *thing*? 

It’s not as if there’s less of a need for education during the months of June, July, and August, as if learning somehow becomes a lower priority simply because the mercury rises. It’s not as if students and teachers are the only positions that get burned out, that desire a mental break, and yet they are the only ones granted it. And it’s certainly not as if parents don’t scramble every summer to find childcare and/or educational opportunities that are otherwise fulfilled for nine months out of the year.

So why? 

It’s all the farmers’ fault, right?

That’s what we’ve been told for years. The modern school calendar was formatted in a particular way, with a break in the summer, so that kids could work on the farm, performing tasks associated with the planting and harvesting of crops. Time magazine, in an article entitled “The Case Against Summer Vacation,” called the three month break “a legacy of the farm economy.” NPR said the school year was based on an “agrarian calendar that dates back to farm cycles and harvests.” Even former President Obama, in a speech on education reform, said “we can no longer afford an academic calendar designed when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day.”

There’s just one problem with this:

It’s not true.

Farming has changed a lot over the years but one simple truth remains the same: most heavy farm work is done in the spring and in the fall. Planting happens in the spring; harvesting in the fall. Before the standardization of school calendars, local districts based their timetables on the needs of the local population. Therefore, in most rural areas, schools would have both a winter and a summer term, each lasting 2-3 months, with breaks in the spring and the fall to allow for farm work.

A winter and a summer term. That means farm kids went to school during the summer when work at home was relatively light compared to other times of the year.

On the other hand, in urban areas, schools remained open essentially year-round, with no times of prolonged breaks at any time of the year. Attendance, however, was not mandatory, and most kids only came to school when they could, in the case of lower-class children, or when they felt like, in the case of upper-class children. In the summer months, during the time before air conditioning, cities would broil under the sun, and many wealthy families would flee to the countryside in search of cooler air. Even those who stayed behind skipped school, seeing no need to subject themselves to lessons inside a classroom even more unbearably hot than the streets outside, especially if their wealthier classmates weren’t there.

Urban schools in the summer, then, were virtual ghost towns.

So in the late 19th century, when school reformers began pushing for a more uniform and standardized school calendar across the country, it was the urban population, not the farmers, who pushed for time off in the summer. And when the modern 180-day school schedule was adopted, placing a 2-3 month break in the June/July/August time frame, the rationale behind it had absolutely nothing to do with farmers.

Or, it seems, with child development.

Although unknown at the time, recent studies have proven that summer break is actually detrimental to a child’s educational progress. Deprived of healthy stimulation, children lose a significant amount of what they’ve learned during the school year, a phenomenon known as “the summer slide.” Some studies put the learning loss as high as 30%, even higher in lower-class families who can’t afford the often expensive camps and programs higher-class families use to engage their children over the long break.

So is summer break an antiquated, unnecessary, and even counterproductive use of time? Absolutely. Is it furthering the educational gap between upper and lower class households? Without a doubt. But reform is an uphill battle, complicated with issues of budgets and public sentiment.

The debate rages on even as parents saddle in for another long, hot summer. But, no matter which side you’re on, as you’re lounging by the pool, soaking in the days or perhaps counting them down until September, just do me one favor:

Don’t blame the farmers anymore.

 

****#historyfriday is on summer hiatus until September. In the meantime, feel free to take a guess at which side of the “summer break” debate I’m on. ;)****

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