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The school year used to favor working parents, but not anymore

More than a century ago, children’s education was more in concert with the needs of caregivers.

The school year used to favor working parents, but not anymore
[Photo: Library of Congress]

Most working Americans take only around 17 days off each year. Yet most children get more than 80 days off from school, as the ubiquitous 180-day academic calendar stubbornly persists in most U.S. school districts. This of course presents a challenge to many working parents, since according to the BLS, there are around 33.6 million families with children under age 18, and 61.9% had both parents employed.

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But it wasn’t always like this. Summer wasn’t always the official harbinger of the end of the school year, nor was 180 days the mandate for time spent in class. More than a century ago, children’s education was more in concert with the needs of caregivers–even though the labor force was predominately male. Women made up only 4.6% of the workforce in 1800 and that number rose to 32% in 1948 (now it’s nearly equal with men, with women making up 47% of the workforce).

It has less to do with farming than you think

It’s a widely held myth that the American public school system was based on the needs of the farming community. Although the earliest years of the U.S. economy depended on agriculture and the sowing and reaping schedule of crops, schools in rural areas were the only ones that tied attendance to the harvest. Two sessions held in winter and summer aided parents who needed their children’s assistance with crops in spring and fall, according to John Rury, an historian of American education at the University of Kansas.

One grammar school in Massachusetts required 12 months of education beginning as far back as 1684. “New York, for example, reported 49 weeks of schooling in 1842, a figure similar to the 11 months in Baltimore and the 251.5 days in Philadelphia,” writes Kenneth Gold, dean of education at the College of Staten Island/CUNY, in a report for the Washington Post. “These and other cities divided the school year into four quarters, and summer terms attracted comparable numbers of students to the others.”

Gold says it wasn’t a universally thought-out plan, but the number of days in the school year started reducing by the end of the 1800s. Resources were tight and holidays off became popular, he says. “While reformers worked hard to increase overall student attendance, school officials grew weary of opening schools on days when large numbers of students were not present.”

The fight over summer vacation

Summer vacation wasn’t instituted wholesale right away. However, it’s ironic that Gold points out how education experts of the day touted the hot weather break as a good chance to rejuvenate mentally and physically for both students and teachers. “School officials hastened to reassure taxpayers and parents that teachers would benefit professionally from additional training during the summer,” Gold says.

Yet as the years ticked by, research began to prove the opposite, especially in low-income families. Some research indicates that a child can lose three months of academic gains per grade level during the summer breaks.

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So what about year-round school?

In the late 1960s, some districts within Missouri, Illinois, California, and Minnesota swung back around to year-round schooling mostly to address their growing student populations. Gold points out that while reformers continue to push for more widespread adoption of more time in school, the issue is complicated.

More time in school doesn’t always correlate to achievement. In fact, research shows that students in Finland spend only 600 hours per year in school as compared to 1,100 for U.S. students. However, Finnish students scored near the top in international comparisons of achievement for a number of years, while American students routinely score 10% to 20% lower.

Gold observes that wealthier parents use the summer break to install their kids in camps or enrichment programs, not to mention travel. Those families who are on lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder don’t have those options.

For most working families, the summer break as well as all the days and weeks off during the school year (not to mention unplanned days like snow days) are an expensive balancing act to keep kids engaged and cared for. But it looks like it won’t be universally solved anytime soon.

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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