We’ve been arguing for almost a year about whether to physically close or reopen schools. Now we need a second debate: Should we reduce school vacations to have more teaching days—remote or in person—so that students can catch up at least part-way on the learning they’ve lost? And should this change be permanent?
Given that the pandemic has already made us reconsider so much of what we used to view as normal—how we work, travel, meet and so forth—one is amazed we haven’t opened up this topic yet. We must, for two reasons. First, the situation of many students is dire. Second, school vacations as they’ve evolved since the Industrial Revolution were an arbitrary and bad idea in the first place. This is as good an opportunity as any to fix that.
Start with the straits of kids. As ever, whether individual children suffer depends on their families. Those from well-to-do and educated households are probably doing fine. Their homes are digital sanctuaries. Their savvy parents may even have formed “pods” with similar families, hiring tutors but otherwise distancing from the general population and its germs.
Most other kids, however, have fallen far behind during remote and online learning. And those from poor families or minorities are lagging most. Studies from the U.S. show that on average students started the current academic year having learned only 67% of the math and 87% of the reading skills that are typically expected. In schools with mostly non-white students, the percentages were 59% in math and 77% in reading. And those are last fall’s numbers, after only half a year of “online learning.”
These educational gaps will permanently damage lives. Even if schools in Germany were to reopen next month, reckons Ludger Woessmann, an economist at the Ifo Institute in Munich, today’s children will on average earn 4.5% less income over the course of their careers. They’re also suffering more from associated epidemics such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders and obesity, which should eventually lead to more diabetes.
What’s clear is that we’re well past the point where we can make up for this lost education without changing how our school systems are set up. Moreover, with new mutations of the covid-19 seeming to appear at about the pace of new vaccines, we may be in this open-closed rotation indefinitely.
At the same time, this pandemic-induced crisis in education also looks like a hugely exaggerated form of another phenomenon educators have been noticing for decades: the so-called “summer slide” or “summer fade” of children forgetting much of what they’ve learned during long vacations.
Even before covid-19, the length of vacations and their distribution throughout the calendar year varied widely among countries. In Europe, children in the Flemish part of Belgium went to school for 158 days a year, those in Denmark or Italy for 200. The U.S., with its long summer breaks, also had relatively little classroom time—about 180 days in most states.
Somehow a myth has prevailed that this tradition dates to the former dictates of the agricultural calendar. If it did, we’d have long breaks in the spring (during planting) and fall (harvesting). In fact, the long summer breaks had more to do with the hell of city life during the Industrial Revolution, before air conditioning and other creature comforts.
The real origin of our present systems was the bureaucratisation that coincided with industrialisation, as governments increasingly standardised education. In the process, they accommodated both rural and urban traditions. The result was mass education for an era of mass production and mass everything—long before human capital, lifetime learning and creativity became buzzwords and policy priorities.
As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it therefore makes no sense to stick with the school systems we built for the First and Second. We should stop cramming as much content as possible into some parts of the year, with huge pressure and exam stress on the kids as a result, only to surrender much of the progress made during the other months.
Most teachers and their unions will reject this call for change. The time outside classrooms, they argue, is needed for teacher training and development. But many other professions also manage to find time for career training, “upskilling” and sabbaticals—as well as rest—without the long breaks of academia.
Admittedly, the pandemic is already a stressor for teachers. Shortening vacations would make it more so. That’s why any proposal for change must also include more support for educators—more pay, but also more training and societal respect. That was necessary even before covid-19. We must attract more talent into the vocation that’s nowadays arguably the most important.
To be clear: ones loves vacations. We all, and especially our kids, need time off. But we’re also in a pandemic that has caused an unprecedented educational disaster. This emergency requires a response. We can’t jam more learning into a day or a week. But we can spread it out more evenly throughout a slightly longer academic year, punctuated by shorter—though perhaps more frequent—breaks.
And whenever this pandemic is over, we can talk about whether that’s a better model even in normal times.