Eye on Education

Six Reasons Students Get Summer Off (And The Agrarian Calendar Isn’t One of Them)

Ida Lieszkovszky / StateImpact: Ohio

These Cedar Point fans can thank 19th century school reformers for their time off.

Many people assume that summer vacation came about because families and children had to tend to their farms. Ohio’s top industry is, after all, agriculture. But just ask Assistant Professor Ken Gold with the City University of New York in Staten Island and he’ll tell you that’s not quite the case. There are a number of reasons summer vacation came about, but an agrarian calendar isn’t one of them.

In fact, Gold said, “the earliest school years in the United States were very different based on whether they were urban or rural communities. Both, though, had summer terms.”

Urban schools essentially ran year-round. For example, in 1842 New York City schools were in class for 248 days. Rural schools took the spring off to plant, and the autumn off to harvest. The summer isn’t actually the busiest time in agriculture.

So how did the summer term come about?  According to Gold, you can attribute summer vacation to the school reformers of the 19th century, for several reasons.

  1. Standardized school years. School reformers wanted to get rural and urban schools on the same schedule. Since rural areas had two terms – in the summer and winter – and urban schools ran year round, a compromise had to be struck. But, why summer?
  2. In rural areas, the summer term was seen as “weak.” Gold said the summer term in rural neighborhoods tended to be taught by young girls in their mid to late teens. On the other hand, schoolmasters, generally older males, taught the winter terms. Because of this, the summer terms were seen as academically weaker.
  3. In urban areas, rich families vacationed in the summer. City schools were trying to limit the school year in the mid-19th century anyway, to adjust to the schedules of wealthy families who would generally go on vacation in the summer.
  4. It’s hot in the summer. The school buildings of the 19th century weren’t exactly air-conditioned. Heat during the summer months would often become unbearable.
  5. Summer gives teachers time to train and get ready for next year. In the 19th century teachers didn’t really go to college or get certified, so Gold said they would use the summer months to train.
  6. Doctors thought kids would need a break.  This idea isn’t given much medical credit these days, but Gold said back in the 19th century it was believed medically unsound for students to be confined to a classroom year-round.

Given all that, school reformers decided the summer term was the best one to take off.

“Once that summer vacation was created and really embedded in American culture and psyche, there is a number of economic interests that are centered around summer leisure, or summer leisure pursuits,” said Gold.

That brings us to a proposal in the Ohio House that would limit the school year between Labor Day and Memorial Day, though the end date requirement will likely be dropped.

Gold said this idea, though passed by a few other states already, is relatively new. Usually, when it comes to adjusting the school year, the idea is to extend it.  That’s because there is a growing body of research that suggests students forget much of what they learned in the previous school year during summer vacation.

“Teachers always talked about how little their students remembered when they came back in September,” said Gold.

But it’s not unusual for non-academic interests to play a key role in making decisions about education.

“Given how much we know about summer learning loss, if that were the primary focus we’d have a much different school calendar,” said Gold. “One that didn’t have any layover of 10 weeks or 8 weeks or 12 weeks.”

In fact, “the reality is it’s far more these economic and cultural factors that influence what we do with summer.”

Which may be why a proposal two years ago to extend the school year in Ohio didn’t get very far.


  • Rose

    In northern Wisconsin, schools are not air conditioned. Can’t imagine finding any money to solve that hot issue. Students and staff need to be comfortable to do well.

  • Anonymous

    The first decade of my teaching career, I was on a year-round schedule. We were on three months and off one. I can tell you from experience that the kids forgot as much in one month as they did in three. We would essentially deal with the first day of school three times a year. I used to have nightmares about not finishing a math unit before we went off-track. Supplemental packets sent home during the break did not really help the students who forgot the most material.

    Lengthening the school year might not be a bad idea, provided 1) the districts were willing to pony up the dough and 2) we used some of the time to enrich the students with art ed. and music. However, keep in mind that whether your school has air conditioning or not, the playgrounds are hot during the summer — especially if your yard has asphalt.

  • Sokr8ez

    Ten weeks on ( with two three day weekends within) and three weeks off. That makes 52 weeks. or you can keep on turning out moronic product.

    • colred

      I think this is great for everyone involved, but we still have no air in the majority of the buildings in our district. They were built when the year was Labor Day to Memorial Day so there was no regard to keeping it cool. We need to handle that.

  • Jschott

    Leave it to the Ohio Legislature to try and drag the Buckeye State back to the good old days of the 19th century. Ice cream socials, parasols and straw boaters–those were the days.

  • nordhouserocker

    For my part, I have always found the freedom to be outdoors in summer to be highly beneficial. Were authentic research to be gathered, it might turn out that it’s good for children to play outside…

  • Colred

    My husband swears that this push has to do with treating kids as slave labor at the marinas on Erie.

  • Phoenix Martinez

    i think that the heat thing is absolute bull. i live in Australia, where we don’t get the entire summer off, and here in summer it is often ABOVE 40 degrees Celsius which is 104 Fahrenheit. from what i have seen online, the average summer temperature in america is about 32 Celsius, or 90 Fahrenheit. which at my other high school, that had no air conditioning would have been a godsend compared to what we actually had to deal with.
    at my school, our parents actually have to sign forms that say if it get above 32 Celsius, they send everyone home.

    so i think if Aussie kid can deal with over 104 Fahrenheit, that American kids can deal with temperatures that are lower than that.

    • Cahokia

      When I think of Australia, I think of a dry continent. We have a saying in the U.S. that might explain the difference: “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity!”

  • Jose 22

    What a load of crap! Ask any older person in the Midwest.

  • Bryana Sanphy


  • Bryana Sanphy

    whats up

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