President Obama gave a sharp, comprehensive speech on education today, in many ways his most detailed and ambitious statement on the subject yet. It included strong language on charter schools, early childhood education, and the way teachers are evaluated and paid. We’ll have a chance to explore these topics in more detail soon, but one quick note on a piece of oft-repeated conventional wisdom that found its way into the speech. The President 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. That calendar may have once made sense, but today, it puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea. That is no way to prepare them for a 21st century economy. That is why I’m calling for us not only to expand effective after-school programs, but to rethink the school day to incorporate more time – whether during the summer or through expanded-day programs for children who need it.
The thing about the origins of summer vacation is one of those factual tidbits that everyone knows, a useful shorthand piece of evidence to use in emphasizing how our education system hasn’t changed with the times. But as Elena Silva noted in her Education Sector report on school time, it misses a key part of the story:
Time in school has been added and subtracted in many ways throughout our country’s history, although not always for obvious reasons. School schedules varied considerably by locality early in our country’s history with some schools open nearly year round and others open only intermittently. In large cities, long school calendars were not uncommon during the 19th century. In 1840, the school systems in Buffalo, Detroit, and Philadelphia were open between 251 and 260 days of the year. New York City schools were open nearly year round during that period, with only a three-week break in August. This break was gradually extended, mostly as a result of an emerging elite class of families who sought to escape the oppressive summer heat of the city and who advocated that children needed to “rest their minds.” By 1889, many cities had moved to observe the two-month summer holiday of July and August. Rural communities generally had the shortest calendars, designed to allow children to assist with family farm work, but they began to extend their school hours and calendars as the urban schools shortened theirs.
Turns out that our irrational school calendar is more a function of what was convenient for rich people than is commonly understood, which all things considered isn’t surprising.