Posted on June 28 2021
By Becky Sicking
Most schools right now are on summer break. A few schools today provide year-long instruction, but they typically still take a long break in the summer months. The common explanation for the break is some variation of the same idea: rural children who lived on farms needed to help their family in agricultural tasks at that time, and thus school was cancelled for the summer. But is this the real reason for summer break?
Debunking means to disprove something. Basically, it is what the show “Mythbusters” does. The show takes a look at popular beliefs, myths, and ideas that have circulated on the internet. Their goal in the show is to find out if the idea is true or if it needs to be “debunked.” With that in mind, Maps101 is going head-to-head with the popular belief that summer break started because of the needs of rural families.
First, let’s take a look at schools during the 1800s. At that time, attendance in school was not compulsory, or required. School calendars varied widely, sometimes within the same area. Different wards in New York City, for example, set different calendars and were in school for different totals of days.
Rural communities tended to operate schools for a winter term and a summer term with spring and fall reserved for farming. The summer required older students to help out sometimes, so they may have skipped school to help, but school was held. Remember that students only attended when they were able. Attendance was not required as it is today. The labor needs on a farm did affect the school calendar, but summer was not the most important time of year for farm labor. Spring was for planting, and fall required labor for harvesting. Summer was a relatively good time for rural children to attend school. Winter required the least amount of farm labor, giving students time to learn. It is, however, fair to say that older children tended to miss school in the summer more than during winter, but they did attend school in the summer.
According to Kenneth Gold, a historian at the College of Staten Island, “What school on the agrarian calendar actually looked like was a short winter term and a short summer term. And if you think about farming needs, that’s actually what makes sense.”
Meanwhile, in urban areas, the school calendar reflected different needs. In 1842, schools in New York typically were open for 49 weeks out of the 52 weeks in a year. This schedule was similar to other cities along the East Coast, such as Boston and Philadelphia. In Detroit that same year, the school year was 260 days long. Most cities divided the school calendar into quarters. In urban areas, students attended throughout the quarters and were not especially gone more in any one season than another.
However, in the late 1800s, schools were not air conditioned. Urban areas grew, and buildings blocked the flow of air, making cities feel even hotter. Schools had poor ventilation. It was hot. Wealthy urbanites typically left the city for the hottest month, August. The middle class started to copy the wealthy by doing the same. Classrooms were open, but they weren’t filled, wasting resources.
Meanwhile, city officials were frustrated at the lack of standardization of school calendars. They pushed to make all of New York’s wards follow the same calendar. Eventually, in cities, taking August off extended to July, and so on, until summer became the typical time to take a break from school in urban areas.
Empty seats in both rural and urban areas were a financial concern, too. If students were not attending, it affected school budgets. Summer was when the smallest number of students were attending, either in rural areas because older children were working on the family farm or in urban areas where the wealthy and middle class took vacations from the heat.
There were other reasons, too, that adults believed students needed a break from school. At the time, many people, including doctors, believed that the human mind and body were frail and weak. People were afraid that the summer was just too much for children. Summer vacation was promoted as a way to rejuvenate childrens’ bodies and spirits. School officials declared that the time off would allow teachers the opportunity to get additional training and professional development. Educators saw summer break as beneficial for everyone.
By the early 1900s, both urban and rural public schools found that summer was best for taking a break. With standardization, all schools started following a schedule that left summer off the academic calendar.
Today, researchers wonder if taking summer break is undesirable for academic achievement. Many schools and teachers report of a “summer slide” when students lose some of what they had learned earlier and thus need to be retaught at the start of the next school year. These concerns were not a focus at the time summer break became standard. Educators today advocate for school attendance year-round. On the other hand, travel and tourism that is enabled by having summer vacation time is a multi-billion-dollar industry. It is unlikely the academic calendar will change in a big way any time soon. One thing is clear—summer break was the result of numerous factors. Urban families probably had a larger role to play in taking summer off than agrarian ones did. Rural areas simply copied what was being done in the cities to keep in step. Now you know why you have a summer break!