Six Reasons Students Get Summer Off (And The Agrarian Calendar Isn't One of Them)

These Cedar Point fans can thank 19th century school reformers for their time off.

Many people assume that summer vacation came about because families and children had to tend to their farms. Ohio’s top industry is, after all, agriculture. But just ask Assistant Professor Ken Gold with the City University of New York in Staten Island and he’ll tell you that’s not quite the case. There are a number of reasons summer vacation came about, but an agrarian calendar isn’t one of them.

In fact, Gold said, “the earliest school years in the United States were very different based on whether they were urban or rural communities. Both, though, had summer terms.”

Urban schools essentially ran year-round. For example, in 1842 New York City schools were in class for 248 days. Rural schools took the spring off to plant, and the autumn off to harvest. The summer isn’t actually the busiest time in agriculture.

So how did the summer term come about?  According to Gold, you can attribute summer vacation to the school reformers of the 19th century, for several reasons.

  1. Standardized school years. School reformers wanted to get rural and urban schools on the same schedule. Since rural areas had two terms – in the summer and winter – and urban schools ran year round, a compromise had to be struck. But, why summer?
  2. In rural areas, the summer term was seen as “weak.” Gold said the summer term in rural neighborhoods tended to be taught by young girls in their mid to late teens. On the other hand, schoolmasters, generally older males, taught the winter terms. Because of this, the summer terms were seen as academically weaker.
  3. In urban areas, rich families vacationed in the summer. City schools were trying to limit the school year in the mid-19th century anyway, to adjust to the schedules of wealthy families who would generally go on vacation in the summer.
  4. It’s hot in the summer. The school buildings of the 19th century weren’t exactly air-conditioned. Heat during the summer months would often become unbearable.
  5. Summer gives teachers time to train and get ready for next year. In the 19th century teachers didn’t really go to college or get certified, so Gold said they would use the summer months to train.
  6. Doctors thought kids would need a break.  This idea isn’t given much medical credit these days, but Gold said back in the 19th century it was believed medically unsound for students to be confined to a classroom year-round.

Given all that, school reformers decided the summer term was the best one to take off.

“Once that summer vacation was created and really embedded in American culture and psyche, there is a number of economic interests that are centered around summer leisure, or summer leisure pursuits,” said Gold.

That brings us to a proposal in the Ohio House that would limit the school year between Labor Day and Memorial Day, though the end date requirement will likely be dropped.

Gold said this idea, though passed by a few other states already, is relatively new. Usually, when it comes to adjusting the school year, the idea is to extend it.  That’s because there is a growing body of research that suggests students forget much of what they learned in the previous school year during summer vacation.

“Teachers always talked about how little their students remembered when they came back in September,” said Gold.

But it’s not unusual for non-academic interests to play a key role in making decisions about education.

“Given how much we know about summer learning loss, if that were the primary focus we’d have a much different school calendar,” said Gold. “One that didn’t have any layover of 10 weeks or 8 weeks or 12 weeks.”

In fact, “the reality is it’s far more these economic and cultural factors that influence what we do with summer.”

Which may be why a proposal two years ago to extend the school year in Ohio didn’t get very far.

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