My school has just finished for the summer, which has me thinking about the topic of summer vacation, and its place in educational culture. The American tradition of lengthy summer vacations for school-aged children has come under a lot of fire from educators and developmental psychologists in recent years, and for legitimate reason - there is plenty of evidence that too much time away from the classroom results in academic lost ground (the so-called "summer slide"), for low-income and otherwise at-risk kids in particular, and the fact that youth crime and other juvenile problems tend to spike upwards during the summer months cannot be a coincidence. I am all for reforming the American school calendar to reduce the length of the summer vacation period significantly.
I do think, however, that summer vacation affords some real opportunities that we should take care not to lose. Here in Japan, kids get a de facto five week summer vacation, but in reality this involves relatively little time away from school, or from studies more generally. From junior high school on, most kids go to school quite a bit during the summer break to participate in clubs or other activities, and students with real academic aspirations continue to attend cram schools throughout the summer. One of the last things the principal of any school in Japan will say to the students when they convene for their final pre-vacation assembly is that they must continue to study hard over the break. This focus on academics no doubt does contribute to the excellent performance of the nation's students on standardized tests, to the high level of education among the workforce, and to overall prosperity - but it does come at a price. I've met few Japanese kids who have had the experiences of attending an American-style summer camp, of going on a long family vacation to another part of the country, or of spending weeks at a time with grandparents or other relatives, and one can see that they miss out on something by lacking those experiences. I go a lot from my childhood summer vacations, some of it practical knowledge of the sort that you can't learn from a textbook, some of it invaluable life experience, some of it immersion in the tangible realities of things that during the school year were only academic abstractions. The first time I ever visited Independence Hall was during a childhood summer vacation, as was the first time I laid eyes on the Grand Canyon, the first time I went river rafting, the first time I earned money by doing a job (mowing our lawn), the first time I visited a foreign country. Furthermore, many of my fondest memories of friends and family date from summer vacations - fishing with my dad, camping trips with my mom, visits to the beach, the amusement park, the ballpark. These experiences may not have availed me as much in my working life as my classroom studies did, but they have hardly been useless - they made me, I like to think, a more complete human being. I'd like to see every kid get the chance to have experiences of this sort.
Differences in lifestyle and technology which have changed what summer vacation entails for kids need to be taken into account. My childhood happened well before the advent of the internet, when video games were in their infancy, and while we did have cable t.v., there was never anything worth watching from a kid's perspective on during the day, so it wasn't capable of totally dissuading us from going outside to play. That's obviously not the case these days, and I doubt that kids get that much benefit out of sitting on the couch playing XBox for ten hours a day. I sometimes wonder if summer vacation hasn't become more problematic as the options for legitimately wasting it have proliferated; in any case I don't doubt that as a society we need to consider the question of what kids will get out of the time away from school if we're going to give it to them. They need opportunities to do things like attend summer camps, participate in summer sports leagues, and the like when they're not in school.
I don't think, however, that abolishing summer vacation - or going to a Japanese style vacation-in-name-only - is necessarily the way to go. Education is a complicated process that entails more than just making sure kids do as much book-learning as possible. I'd like to see American schools go to a shorter summer vacation - maybe six or seven weeks, instead of eleven. And I'd like to see that time structured better, so that kids actually get something from it. But I don't want to see it disappear entirely.
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