The Case Against Summer Vacation

It's an outdated legacy of the farm economy. Adults still romanticize it. But those months out of school do the most damage to the kids who can least afford it

  • Cass Bird for TIME

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    For Fairchild, successes like the ones in Cincinnati, Houston and Corbin show the possibilities in a new approach to summer school. "That phrase has such a bad ring to it," he notes. "We need to push school districts to frame summer school as a good thing, something extra--not a punishment. There is a cultural barrier that we have to overcome. We're not the Grinch that stole summer vacation. " With billions of dollars for improved education bulging from last year's economic-stimulus package, Fairchild hopes to persuade school districts across the country to steer some of the money into the neglected months of June, July and August.

    But a report by Education Sector, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, highlights a problem with relying on public schools for summer enrichment. "In the best schools, there would be an ample increase in academic learning time," author Elena Silva wrote. "But in poorly managed schools, with inexperienced teachers and a host of other challenges," a longer school year just means more lost days. If school districts fail during the traditional year, what are the chances that competence and creativity will suddenly blossom when the weather turns hot? In the best summer-only programs, bureaucracy is lean and change is easy. There's an informality to the summer culture--maybe it's those bare feet and damp swimsuits and homemade lanyards--that fosters easy innovation and rapid improvement. As Terry Ogle, a former middle-school principal who runs the Indianapolis Algebra Project, told me, things happen more quickly outside school systems: "A few years ago, we were teaching kids at two summer sites. Now we're in 29."

    It was during a summer vacation from Harvard Law School that Earl Phalen had his first teaching experience, as a volunteer at an impoverished school in Jamaica. He says he knew immediately that "this was what I wanted to do with my life." But like many other big thinkers drawn to education in recent years, Phalen saw the existing public schools as a roadblock, not a career path.

    So Phalen has become one of the country's leading education reformers by seizing opportunities to reach kids outside the traditional school day. One of his nonprofit ventures, Reach Out and Read, engages pediatricians to evangelize for literacy. His latest project, sponsored by an innovative Indiana undertaking called the Mind Trust, uses summer to make an end run around the ingrained habits and intractable bureaucracies of inadequate schools.

    Called Summer Advantage, the program offers five weeks of intensive, all-day education to children from kindergarten to eighth grade. Phalen hires only certified teachers and chooses them on the basis of talent, not seniority. The curriculum ranges from math, reading and writing to cooking, dance and music--but the consistent element is strong teachers working in small groups with excited students. I visited a Summer Advantage school in Indianapolis, and perhaps the best way to describe it is to say, first, that all the students are in economic and academic need and, second, that I wasn't there five minutes before a boy looked me in the eye and announced, "I'm going to be an aeronautical engineer."

    Summer Advantage is operating at a dozen sites across Indiana this year, serving some 3,100 "scholars," as Phalen insists his students be called. His goal is to enroll 100,000 scholars five years from now and to be "part of the cadre that changes the way this country does education." He has support from Washington, where a friend from Harvard Law now sits in the Oval Office. The U.S. Department of Education has put money into Summer Advantage, Phalen says, "because we're part of their agenda to prove that hiring teachers based on quality instead of seniority will produce good results." So far, the data look promising. Summer Advantage launched last year, and its scholars improved their performance on state math and reading tests by an average of 14 percentage points, Phalen says. On the basis of that, he projects that scholars who spend three seasons with Summer Advantage will raise their scores from an average baseline in the low 30th percentiles into the 70th percentiles in math and reading.

    "If you want to drive the dropout rate even higher, just extend the school year by another 30 days," says Phalen. Instead, he argues, we should embrace the fact that summer is the opposite of school to make it the season of true educational reform. But here's the hard part: if summer enrichment is the innovative, cost-effective answer to one of the nation's thorniest problems--the failure to educate many of our neediest kids--how do we address so large a problem without creating another stultifying version of the failed status quo? How do we increase participation and raise standards without crushing creativity and imposing bureaucracy? Can we really entrust something so important to a haphazard network of camp counselors, volunteers and entrepreneurs?

    Well, maybe. In places all over the country--from inner cities to Appalachia, inside rec centers and church basements, on bumpy ball fields and pocked playgrounds--kids are learning this summer, and they're having a blast. While it's true that NASA runs one of the largest summer enrichment programs in the country, this isn't rocket science. If ever there was a movement suited to local experiments, informal innovations and seat-of-the-pants efforts, surely it's the campaign to squeeze more from summer. Because revolutions come from the grass roots, and everyone knows when grass is thickest.

    In summer.

    Desk days

    Although U.S. students have longer summer breaks, they spend more total hours in the classroom. Yet U.S. math scores still fall below those in many other industrialized countries

    [This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine.]

    Sources: American Sociological Review; Karl L. Alexander, Johns Hopkins University; Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; National Center for Educational Statistics. Reported by Ruchika Tulshyan

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