The Case Against Summer Vacation: Something Smells Fishy

This week, as kids and adults were wilting in the heat, Christina Duncan Evans, a high school teacher in Baltimore, made the case against summer vacation.  “With so many huge education-reform ideas under discussion,” she asks, in a piece at Education Week, “why isn’t altering summer vacation on the table?”

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Evans talks of the loss of knowledge and skills—or “summer slide,” as it’s now known—during the nine to ten weeks of the U.S. break.  A danger, in particular, for low-income students, as the New America Foundation noted in a recent forum on the phenomenon:

The so called “summer slide” in educational achievement hits young children from low-income families the hardest. Without opportunities to read together with adults, to practice new skills and to gain exposure to new words and ideas, far too many young children lose two to three months of reading skills each summer. Scholars have documented that two-thirds of the ninth-grade reading achievement gap can be attributed to this loss in the elementary school years alone.

Evans calls state policymakers on their hypocrisy: how can they claim they’re data-driven, and not act on the information they have?  And how can they be complicit in maintaining such an antiquated model of schools, one that’s wholly inadequate to the task of producing those 21st-century thinkers for a global economy? Our high-performing competitors, she asserts, spread the breaks around, throughout the year.  And she’s not above venting, noting that the burden of improving outcomes falls disproportionately on the adults working in schools, not on students and families.  “Asking ordinary families to make substantial changes is a much tougher sell,” she writes—after mentioning the potent summer camp lobby.

Evans is right that teachers bear a great burden.  But she needs a little data review herself.  As Duke economist Helen Ladd has concluded, citing a robust evidence base, families’ socioeconomic status is strongly correlated to student achievement. The education policies du jour—which promote a punitive form of accountability—are putting tremendous pressure on Evans and her peers to compensate for deep, structural inequalities that perpetuate achievement gaps.  It’s not surprising that she’s carping about the length of summer vacation.  But she seems to be grasping at straws.

A shorter hiatus, or more frequent breaks, might ward off some of that dreaded skill decline. Some states have already tinkered with this tradition. And it would likely be easier on parents as well.  But then there’s that powerful camp lobby, protecting its sylvan turf.  Participants in the New America event pondered the use of well-deployed technology to close the summer gap, or the ways in which “digital connections might help parents tap into affordable and motivating opportunities for their children to experience the joy of reading and learning, offline and on.”

Who can argue against the joy of reading and learning or equitable access to technology? I won’t.  But here’s my beef on the slide.  For the children of the socioeconomically well-endowed, for whom “affordable and motivating opportunities” are a dime a dozen, summer has long been a time for fun and daydreaming, playful and intellectual enrichment, and meeting the challenges of nature.  A few of the things that we know nurture growth and a sense of competence in children who are lucky enough to have them.  Many of the kids we label “disadvantaged” have a surfeit of these opportunities, particularly the ones outdoors—the impetus for the founding of Outdoor Afro, a “social community” that reconnects African-Americans with nature through camping, hiking, biking, birding, fishing, and gardening.  The repercussions for children’s healthy physical, cognitive, and emotional development in the absence of such experiences are worthy of our serious consideration.

To suggest that “those children”  be tethered to technology or consigned to a narrowly focused, academic regimen in the service of benchmark maintenance and ever-higher test scores is to pervert the notion of equity.  It’s also hypocritical.  Would we want the same for “our” children?

Photo Credit: Kristin B. Eno


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Empathy is Great, But It’s No Silver Bullet for Ed Reform and Poverty

Empathy is the bedrock of our civilization.  Without it, we might as well pack up our tent and leave the planet.  We can’t have enough of it—in government, in schools, in families, in communities, and the world.

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Kids develop empathy earlier than we ever could have ever imagined, as Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology and philosophy at Berkeley, has been reminding us for years.  Such a revelation.  But they do so with other human beings—in a dance choreographed from birth.   As the human ecologist, Urie Bronfenbrenner, wrote:

In order to develop — intellectually emotionally, socially and morally — a child requires participation in progressively more complex reciprocal activity on a regular basis over an extended period in the child’s life, with one or more persons with whom the child develops a strong, mutual, irrational, emotional attachment and who is committed to the child’s well-being and development, preferably for life.

Or, in other words: “Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her.”

Lately, Bronfenbrenner’s visionary theory—beloved in wonkish early childhood development circles—has  found its way into the national conversation about education reform, parenting, and poverty.  Paul Tough captured this trend in the zeitgeist with How Children Succeed, focusing on grit, and what social scientists call the “contextual factors” that drive kids’ achievement.  “Empathy,” I noticed, is missing from his book’s index, but its fingerprints are all over the discussion about emotional intelligence, and the development of grit and curiosity, broadly referred to as “character education.”

Tough’s suggestion that we can teach all of the above—he cites KIPP’s middle schools as the laboratory—is hopeful, but misguided.  When  kids’ natural empathy is derailed in the earliest months (it’s hard to be crazy about your child when you’re barely surviving), they’re already behind the curve.

The empathy movement is great.  I’m on board. But I’m worried that something’s getting lost in translation.  An all-purpose inoculation, this is not.  Nor is it a silver bullet for everything that ails us.

In Jessica Lahey’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Why Kids Care More About Achievement than Helping Others,” she cites a recent study out of Harvard about the messages adults are sending to children.  The findings are pretty terrifying: apparently the vast majority of teachers, administrators and school staff felt that parents were giving short shrift to caring in child-rearing, prioritizing achievement and happiness above all.

Lahey’s conclusion gets right to the heart of the matter.   “We may pay lip service to character education and empathy, but our children report hearing a very different message,” she writes, adding that “simply talking about compassion is not enough”:

Children are perceptive creatures, fully capable of discerning the true meanings in the blank spaces between well-intentioned words. If parents really want to let their kids know that they value caring and empathy, the authors suggest, they must make a real effort to help their children learn to care about other people—even when it’s hard, even when it does not make them happy, and yes, even when it is at odds with their personal success.

We need to walk the walk—as a society, across the socio-economic divide.  A staggering 25 percent of  U.S. children under the age of six are living in poverty.  For them, this question is hardly academic.   What’s the message they’re getting between well-intentioned words?


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A Moment of Conscience: Toward a Family-Friendly U.S.A.

Last week, my stepson’s wife returned to work after a three-month maternity leave. As she wrapped up the first days of her work-family balancing act, President Obama addressed the nation, a sneak preview of the White House Summit on Working Families.  “Family leave. Childcare.  Flexibility. These aren’t frills – they’re basic needs,” Obama declared. “They [... click post title to read more ...]


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