Adjusting the length of the school year

It occurs to me that we’re still dealing with an archaic tradition that has persisted despite lots of technology. I’m talking about the school year. Many decades ago, having a three or four month interruption in schooling during the summer made sense. Most Americans lived in rural areas, and many were farmers. The farmers needed all the help they could get during the busy summer harvest season, so of course they needed the assistance of their kids. Even my dad spent a summer or two at his uncle’s farm in Oklahoma, putting up fences, handling cattle, driving a tractor to till the fields, etc. But the times have changed.

More than half of all Americans now live in cities and towns, and the number of people who are actually involved in rudimentary farming are vanishingly small. Technology has also come a long ways, making farms much more mechanized, and requiring the use of less labor. Also, consider the changing American societal attitudes of child labor. Children don’t help out at the farm to the extent that they used to, and they really are no longer needed. So why do they need so many months off in the summer? They don’t.

It would be better for society in general if the school year was radically reshaped. Current school years (in the United States, anyway) have just 180 to 182 school days in them — that’s slightly less than half of the year! Think of all of the extra educational benefit we would get from increasing that number to, say, 70%. Simply eliminate the summer vacation and add more one week vacations, like Spring Break, throughout the year.

Now I’m not saying that summer fun should be eliminated, not at all. I went to a lot of educational summer camps when I was younger and I had a blast. But I also went to a fair number of leisure camps that, although they were fun, didn’t much educate me along the way to my adult life. Summer school should be a bit different than winter school. Kids would go on a lot more field trips. It’d almost be like an educational summer camp, except that it would be paid for and controlled by the state, which would do wonders for kids living in poverty whose parents cannot afford to send them to camp.

Looking back at my life, at the current age of 21, I can say there was a good amount of wasted time. It shouldn’t take so many years to get the equivalent of an undergraduate degree in knowledge. If the antiquated summer break were simply phased out, children would be getting much more instructional time each year, would learn more, would be smarter, and would be able to productively contribute to society at a younger age. One of the big problems we’re currently facing in America is stupidity. Increased schooling would fix that.

4 Responses to “Adjusting the length of the school year”

  1. arensb Says:

    I’ve often thought something similar. I grew up in two cantons in Switzerland, each with somewhat different school systems. Summer vacation was significantly shorter (which meant that when you started 8th grade, you hadn’t forgotten everything you’d done in 7th grade), but there were lots of smaller breaks throughout the school year: Christmas vacation, spring break, fall break, and a few others. I liked that, because there was always a break to look forward to relatively soon.

    Even the week is organized differently: in Geneva, schools are closed on Thursdays, though there’s school on Saturday morning. In the canton of Vaud, schools are closed Wednesday afternoons. Kind of like a weekend in the middle of the week. IOW the entire school schedule has sort of a fractal pattern of breaks, from recess, to midweek free days, to small vacations, to summer vacation. IMHO that worked better than the US system of five days in a row until the weekend, and a bunch of school days followed by a very long vacation.

    I’ve heard that some school tried to reorganize along different lines, by having three trimesters in the school year, with medium-length vacations between them. Plus, the curriculum is staggered: if the calculus you’re supposed to learn in your junior year is split into Junior Calc 1, 2, and 3, then each of those courses is taught each trimester. So you can be held back a trimester in calculus, or even in everything. Or, if you’re transferring from another school system, you’re not necessarily jumping in in the middle of the school year.

  2. Cyde Weys Says:

    That’s very interesting that some variant of my system is already in use in other countries, and it seems to be quite successful. I fear that most Americans, upon hearing about this idea, will out-and-out reject it in a stupid knee-jerk fashion, without really considering any of its numerous benefits.

  3. Steve Says:

    The University of Waterloo in Canada already has such a system, and has had it for many years. The year is split into 3 terms of 4 months each, and you could take courses in all 3 if you wish, compressing your 3-year degree into 2 years or as little as 5 terms. Most students take 4-month breaks every second term because they also have an extremely successful Co-op program which pays your way. Students in Co-op finish their 4-year Honours degrees in about 5 years with 3 years of work experience, very little debt, and often a full-time job waiting for them.

  4. Dev920 Says:

    I finished high school only about a month ago, so I still have memories of what it is like trying to work, or not, through the summer. The heat in the afternoons and the consequent drowsiness, the staring out of the window at the beautiful sky and grass while my teacher tried to interest me in Shakespeare, and the similar attitudes of all those sitting around me did not make for a good learning environment, and that was just in May when we had the summer holidays to look forward to. I cannot imagine what it would be like trying to study in August.