LISTEN — Class Disrupted Episode 9: Should School Be Year-Round?

(Class Disrupted)

@Class Disrupted is a weekly education podcast featuring author Michael Horn and Summit Public Schools’ Diane Tavenner in conversation with educators, school leaders, students and other members of school communities as they investigate the challenges facing the education system amid this pandemic — and where we should go from here. Find every episode by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Stitcher (new episodes every Tuesday).

School’s out for summer, and that means fun, relaxation, and … weekly schedule spreadsheets? On this episode of Class Disrupted, we discuss how summer break can create stress for parents and kids seeking the best opportunities to fill their time. We also examine the inequity that summer creates in access to child care and enrichment programs.

Mira Browne, executive director of the nonprofit Prepared Parents, joins us to share how she manages summer with her own kids and the struggles she’s been hearing from parents around the country. Looking into the future of school in the fall, with a pandemic still raging, we discuss how a more balanced school year might provide solutions to multiple problems for educators, parents, and students.

Parent: We start planning for summer the preceding November when my girlfriends start emailing me about what my kids are going to do the following summer. The sign-ups start in early December here, and some of these camps are really popular and you have to sign up right away in order to get a spot for yourself. And that’s just a crazy time of year already, with Thanksgiving and the holidays. And to be thinking, on top of that, about six-plus months in the future — it’s crazy. And also you’re not exactly sure what your kid will be into or what you’ll want your kid to do the following summer. So you’re just making your best guess, and that just seems insanely early for me to be thinking ahead.

One of the challenges of summer is that each week is different. During the school year, you can get into a rhythm. You have a routine, but during the summer, every week is different.

And when you have a whole team helping take care of the kids (my mother-in-law helps take care of the kids; we usually have a babysitter for the summer who helps take care of the kids on the days when my husband and I both work), that means each week conveying to at least three people — including the kids, five people — what that week’s going to entail. So every Sunday during the summer, I have mild panic because I need to not only figure that information out for myself and print out maps of where the drop-off site is on this complicated campus, but now I’ve got to convey that information to three other people. So it’s challenging.

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

Diane: Hi, I’m Diane Tavenner.

Michael: And I’m Michael Horn. Welcome to Class Disrupted.

Diane: Michael, this parent’s experience took me back. It’s, granted, been a few years since I’ve had to coordinate summer care for my son, but I remember how stressful it was. I used to count down the weeks for summer to be over so we could just get back to our regular routine again.

I am well aware that our family was super lucky: we have resources, we have flexibility to manage different camps and experiences, and it was still so challenging in so many ways. And I think then about how it was when I was growing up and my family didn’t have any of what we have. And so my sister and I spent most of our summers without supervision while my mom was working. The best-case scenario was that we were playing board games and outside, and the worst was we were watching TV all day. I’ve wondered for a really long time: What would it be like if we had a more balanced school year, and what if we didn’t have to take a typical summer break at all?

Michael: I know, Diane, summer break is so problematic on so many levels. Logistics-wise, for sure, and right now I don’t know if this is the modern age of parenting or if it’s been this way for many, many years, but we literally have had spreadsheets upon spreadsheets trying to figure out how to make it all work the last couple summers, let alone in the current moment. But it’s also problematic equity-wise — obviously the pandemic has now created huge new problems with summer. Most parents don’t have camps; they don’t have child care. They don’t have school for their kids, but many still have to work.

Diane: Definitely. And Michael, one of the many things I’ve learned from you is that what I had always been taught in all of my education courses and graduate programs about the reason why we have summers off was actually inaccurate. For years I believed this idea that summer break came about because as a country, we’re an agricultural country, and we had an agrarian calendar and basically the kids needed to be let off in order to bring in the harvest and plant or whatever they were doing in the fields. But it turns out that’s actually not true. And I didn’t learn this until very recently. And the real origin seems to be quite disturbing to me.

Michael: Yeah. First, it’s a common myth, right? Most people, when you ask them why we have summer vacation, they think, “Oh, the agrarian calendar. That’s just the way it’s been.”

And it makes sense for farming. But when you step back from it, you realize you’re certainly not alone in those misconceptions. I had them as well. The reality is at least until the Civil War, kids actually went to school year-round, and summer break actually came about from the rising middle and upper class in American society.

Wealthy and affluent families basically wanted to beat the summer heat, so they just pulled their kids out of school and took off to the countryside or to the beach and cooler climates because school attendance wasn’t mandatory at the time. And so then there were all these empty seats in the summer and legislators and labor unions essentially pushed for a more regulated summer break. Now we just treat this as the way school is done.

Diane: I always thought that there was this component of it that it’s what we’re used to and we can’t change. And I was really disappointed that we hadn’t had the ability to modernize our school calendar, given all the evidence about how it would be best for kids. But this new lens kind of blows my mind. And, Michael, when you look at it this way, summer break came from inequity and class differences, and now it perpetuates those differences.

And in this moment in time, that feels really unacceptable to me. Because some kids are going to have enrichment activities all summer, even just simply having an adult there with them, watching over them like my son did. Other kids, like when I was a kid, are not. And it’s pretty appalling that we haven’t been talking about this more.

Michael: I couldn’t agree with you more. And I think that it’s just that we’re all just so used to it that we haven’t thought much about how it could be different, right? We have entire industries that have sprung up around summer vacation: We have camps, classes, resorts. There are towns where I am in New England that basically only exist for the summertime, because it’s summertime-only businesses that we have. And so there’s this huge vested interest for many in keeping summer break just the way it is.

Diane: Yeah. So that’s the “why” of it. And that’s how we got here. But now that we’re here, let’s talk about if parents actually think it works. Are we outliers here, or is this something that might be done better?

I think who we should turn to, Michael, is Mira Browne. She’s the executive director of Prepared Parents, which is a nonprofit that supports parents in doing what we all want to do, which is to raise our kids to live happy and fulfilled lives. In Mira’s work, she’s in touch with parents all over the country, and she’s hearing about what works for them and what doesn’t, and she’s a parent, herself, of a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old. And I think we can both appreciate in this moment in time how challenging that is.

So I wanted to check in with Mira to see how she manages it herself — both in the regular year and during this time of COVID, but also what she’s hearing from other parents. So let’s check in with her.

Mira: I think there’s an evening in January or sometime this winter that is so vivid in my mind. And I think it would speak to so many parents’ experiences of summer. We were sitting at the kitchen table. It was probably close to midnight; we were exhausted. And we had spreadsheets in front of us. You would think we’re doing financial planning, and in some ways we were, but no. We were literally carving out our summer week by week trying to figure out—and this is pre-COVID — trying to figure out: When am I traveling? When is he traveling? What camps are available? Where should we send our kid? How much does it cost?

We had a spreadsheet minute by minute, basically week by week of summer, and then in that, you’re also putting, “OK, when does this camp open registration?” and whatever it might be. It was like moving puzzle pieces around — that’s essentially what you’re trying to do to fill your summer.

Not all camps are all day. So if you’re a full-time working parent and a camp ends at 12 or 1, it’s not really that helpful. And you just have to leave your job to go pick up your kid and bring them home or whatever it might be, and then figure out how to cover an afternoon. So which camps are all day? Or afterwards have extra for pay — afterschool programming, afterschool meaning after camp programming.

And then how do you stay within your budget? What’s too far away? There are some great camps that are 45 minutes away. As a working parent, how do you drive 45 minutes both directions to drop off one kid here, another kid here? And if you have multiple kids, you’re thinking about all of their individual needs.

And so that night was so exhausting. And at the same time, I felt this crazy pressure as a parent because we were new to Austin and some friends had sent us their spreadsheets because every parent has the summer spreadsheet — or so I’ve learned the last two summers.

And again, it was all of these camps, from sports to nature, to robotics, to coding for young kids. And I was looking, and they had literally sliced and diced their kids’ time into all of these passions and interests and camps and things. They had what was going to be enrichment versus fun.

They were sending it to me to be nice, and I still appreciated it, and yet I felt so much anxiety. I thought about my son, who had had an extremely tough school year, who doesn’t do well with transitions, and going from, like, camp to camp to camp, every week learning new expectations and new rules, being with a new group and also commuting every day. I was like, “I can’t. How am I going to do this?”

But then I felt this pressure. Am I leaving him behind? Which sounds so silly when you’re thinking about summer; you’re, like, thinking about eight weeks of the summer. But am I leaving my kid behind? If I don’t give him the Legos and the exploration and the robotics and the nature and this and that.

There’s so much as a parent wrapped into summer, because summer has essentially just become like this extension of this race you’re on as a parent. You feel it all year round with what extracurricular your kids are in, or what you’re exposing them to, what experiences they have.

It’s starting younger and younger and younger, and parents are really stressed about “how do I fill the time, and how do I make sure that my kids are getting the best of the best” if they can afford it? And if you can’t, you’re trying to fill eight weeks or whatever it might be of the time with “how am I going to patchwork family members and friends to watch my kids and make sure they’re safe because I still have to work?”

Diane: I know you’ve talked to parents all across the country who have really diverse circumstances and far fewer resources than we have. How do they experience summer, and how do they think about it? How does it make them feel? What do they do?

Mira: It’s really stressful. I think summer is that stress of, “Oh gosh, summer’s coming. How do I fill that time?” That’s what I hear a lot of, “How do I fill that time? How do I make it work?” And I think at the same time, there is a part of you as a parent — I heard it a lot in the wintertime, I should say, pre-COVID — that you kind of want some carefree time for your kids. You want them to breathe a little, have some fun playtime to be kids. And as parents, we’re so funny sometimes, too, because you don’t want your kids to be lazy. So when you have even a few options, you’re struggling between those two things.

I think that’s what’s been so hard lately with COVID, because parents rely on the community pools and the recreational centers and the library and the places that kids can go to be safe during the day when parents are working, especially with older kids and especially with the city-sponsored camps and things that are affordable.

When you don’t have those options or you don’t get into that option, that’s really stressful and hard. But we have heard that summers are particularly hard, especially for those that don’t have a lot of options, because you do end up relying on either community events and organizations and things like that, or family and friends who can pitch in and help. Sometimes that’s great, and sometimes that doesn’t feel very good either, especially when you know that there are kids who are in the Lego camp and the coding, and then it feels like you’re depriving your child somehow — you can’t give your child something that other parents are able to give their kid. And then, once again, are you leaving them behind? Are you giving them something that they need to succeed?

Taking on that pressure for eight weeks out of the year is really hard for parents. And so it’s just a time of intensity for those who aren’t able to supplement via camps and such.

Diane: What you’re describing reminds me of something. My husband and I often talk about how we wake up in the morning and we think to ourselves, “Well, am I going to be a bad dad, spouse, employee, friend … what am I going to be terrible at today?” Because it’s not possible to be good at everything that I’m supposed to be good at.

Mira: It’s so true. And something that’s interesting that I hadn’t thought about because I have little kids is that for parents who have older kids, in some ways, it is a little bit more stressful, too. We’ve heard from parents lately, actually, that for middle and high schoolers there just aren’t as many options of really quality good [summer activities]. And yet that’s a time where that’s really needed for kids, especially middle schoolers. Right? Think about just how important that is for them to be engaged in places that they feel loved and secure and safe and all of that. And for high schoolers, too.

You would think it gets easier. But I think as kids get older, what we’ve heard from parents is it gets harder and parents really worry about those summer months. And they want to give them what they need during that time, and oh, by the way, that’s where the pressures of the college résumé start, because during the school year — another thing we’ve heard — is that there isn’t the time. A lot of schools cut back on art and all of these things that allow kids to have exploration of passions and interests. So when do you push that? A lot of parents push that to the summer, but if you don’t get those opportunities, then, again, am I leaving my kid behind?

Diane: Can you tell us a little bit about what you are doing with your family and your kids this summer?

Mira: Yeah, so this summer is obviously unique. For the first part of the summer, we had our kids home and we had to figure out how to fill our time, quite frankly. And in some ways it was great. It was a relief because there were no Zooms. I didn’t have to worry about fighting for my kid to get on to finish his classes or anything like that.

I didn’t have the pressure of teacher, mom, employee, all of these things that I think we’ve all felt very critically over the last couple of months. And so it was great. And then, now, how do I fill the time? Camps were still closed; day cares were closed. We didn’t want to go to the playground, community pools, libraries, all of these things that you take advantage of.

Oh, by the way, it’s Texas and it’s a hundred degrees outside. It’s hot and humid and the kids don’t want to actually be outside. And so as much as you can, like. entice them with like the sprinkler. Then day care and camp opened mid- to end of June. And we had to make a really hard decision on whether to send our kids to camp and day care and sort of put them back, right?

It was really hard. And I thought about how intense the spring was and how stressful our house was and how much my son missed his friends and kids and just being with other kids his age, and honestly, my husband and I needed to work. So we sent our kids back into day care and camp.

It was great for a couple of weeks. And it was great for Gabriel. Honestly, he’s a different kid Monday through Friday. He smiled again. He hadn’t really smiled a real big smile since March. But then we had just recently two kids test positive at my son’s day care, and reality hit very close to home. We’re just making day-by-day decisions right now until school starts in mid-August for us.

Michael: All right, Diane, so Mira has confirmed for me that I’m not the only parent that a long summer break really is not working for. But the other piece that’s hugely important here is the students themselves. When we look at whether they’re well served by summer break, the answer from my perspective is a resounding “no.” For a long time, educators have obviously been concerned about the “summer slide,” the idea that kids lose their academic gains over the summer months.

And yes, there’s currently an active debate among researchers right now about whether that’s actually the case or not. But what I think no one would disagree with is that students are certainly not learning that much of what gets tested on standardized tests. And so summer break certainly isn’t helping in that respect. And I guess on top of that, we’ve talked about our skepticism around those standardized tests in many cases. The other part of this though, is that many students from upper- and middle-income families are getting a ton of enrichment in the summer that lower-income families just do not have access to. And this enrichment might not get measured directly, although I do imagine it shows up on reading tests, given they’re actually really tests of background knowledge. But it’s just an incredible additional level of inequity, Diane, that’s built into the system that isn’t measured or really understood deeply.

Diane: Yes, Michael, and it’s inequity on reading and those types of tests, but it’s so much more, too. One of the most dangerous summers for students is when they graduate from high school. Kids work incredibly hard to get into college, and then in the summer there’s a significant drop-off from the kids who say they’re going to go to actually show up and enroll and attend in the fall. And the reality is, so many kids from low-income families become adults in that summer. They get jobs, and then they’re faced with having to move, leave their families, a gigantic college bill and, you know, all of these other challenges that they’re facing.

And so many choose not to go, which makes sense from a personal perspective. But it’s just another version of that summer slide and that loss. On the flip side, listening to Mira and so many other parents like her, they’re just doing what’s natural. They’re putting all of their time, energy and resources into trying to use summer as the very best opportunity they can for their kids. And this is what every parent wants and does for their child, but there’s no way around the reality that the people who have more money, more time, more connections — their kids get more opportunities. And so we can talk about this from a super-negative perspective and a really “this is harmful for kids” perspective, but the reality is, this is just one more opportunity. It’s a giant opportunity gap.

And it’s an opportunity where we can actually do something about it. And as we always say, we’re all about the hope here, Michael. So before we get too down on this, I’d like to suggest that there might be some hope.

Michael: And it’s an important point, right? Because I think we’re not trying to take away those opportunities from those families and students that have it. I don’t blame them at all. And I think it’s really important that they do what’s best, but we can also create a lot more opportunities for those who otherwise would be left behind. And so the question is how to shape that.

And the challenge I think that we face — and so I’m going to step away from the hope for a moment, but we’ll get back there — is that given these problems, we can’t deny that the idea of a more balanced school year does bring a lot of opposition. And I think partly that’s because people have a romanticized notion of summer break. Think of obviously all the pop songs devoted to summer, but you know, I’ll also be the first one to confess I have really strong nostalgia around my summers working, playing tennis, all the things that I did. And school that’s more year-round — it just feels like such a big change. Even just to say it, right? Forget about the actual logistics. Just saying it sounds like such a big change, such that I can completely get why people would see this as a loss, but here’s your point that you’re starting to drive to. And I totally agree that there’s actually so many gains possible, too, if we can flip our perspective.

Diane: Right, and this is where the designer in me starts to get really excited. Because to clarify, a more balanced school year would not mean no time off in the summer or no time off.

Michael: It’s not like we’re saying I wouldn’t get my vacation.

Diane: Yes. And in fact, I would argue in a better way. There are school districts around the country right now, and for many years, in Charleston, West Virginia and Michigan who are already doing a version of this. And what it looks like is generally — or one way it can look — is four quarters of nine weeks or so with three or four weeks of time off in between.

And let’s just pause there for a moment. How great is that? Maybe you’re able to do stuff when the whole planet isn’t trying to do stuff at the same time. If I put my teacher hat on, I see a ton of benefits to this schedule. One of the key features of a teacher’s life is how exhausted they are at the end of every school year.

We kind of joke you literally need the entire summer just to recover. With a more balanced school year, it doesn’t have to be that way. You run hard for a period of time, and then you take this break, you reflect, and you’re able to sort of rejuvenate and be able to come back. The pace is more reasonable, and it’s such a logical way to think about doing things.

Michael: So that sounds pretty nice, Diane, but the more balanced school year also has some other benefits, too. We’ve been talking obviously about the need for personalization in pretty much every episode we’ve done in this podcast. And I think it helps to look at it like this.

Imagine that schools are essentially community centers where kids — of course they’re focusing on academics using a mastery-based system — are also given the space, time and opportunity to pursue other things that they’re interested in. And that there’s a range of supports around them depending on their needs from a family and child perspective. And you can imagine a kid who’s mastering his or her work and then wants to take the time to explore filmmaking. Right? And he has the flexibility now to do this in that space, or perhaps he needs some supports that aren’t readily available in his home life and the school can provide that.

I always remember … I hearkened back to my middle brother. I remember him distinctly telling my youngest brother that summer is where you really get to invest in yourself and develop something you’re passionate about. And the more I reflect on that comment, Diane, I just say, “Why doesn’t that happen in school itself?”

It’s crazy that we don’t do that! And under this kind of a model it could. And the children who need more time on the academics — they, of course, would have the time and space to do that — but essentially you’d be creating a much more flexible system that is much more available with much more opportunity for all students.

Diane: Michael, as you know, at Summit we actually do something like this. We have not yet figured out how to do this throughout the summer, but during the school year, we basically have a blueprint for how this works. Our students engage in expeditionary learning and they do two weeks at a time; they do it four weeks during the school year. And then they’re there on sort of their academic work for about a six-week period in between. And they go back and forth, and it serves very much the similar purpose that we’re talking about.

It is one of the major attractions for students, for their families, for teachers, for everyone who works in our schools. And so I have such a clear vision of how this can be such a powerful model for schooling.

Michael: I totally agree. And one of the things that’s always struck me about it is: One of the things that could get lost without summer are those opportunities to have sustained work experiences. Your model allows you to do that. I talk about it all over the country because I love that you all do this. I look back at my own experience right now and I would say, I’d honestly take the video production and screenwriting or botany expeditions that you offer if I could today right now. And it just seems like that type of a structure that you’ve built is really well suited to help us meet the challenge we face now with the pandemic.

If we want to be spreading out the number of children in a certain building at a certain time, for example, it’s only logical to expand the time that you have to make that work. I think that a lot of schools would be looking to a similar model as they plan for next year, on top of which it would also give schools a lot of opportunities to start using these next couple months as a way to prototype different approaches to learning as they prepare for the fall.

Diane: It’s so true, Michael. I can’t say that as a leader of schools, pandemic planning is easy. This may be one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done, but it absolutely helps to have more time and flexibility to work with. And, you know, there are a couple of things at play here. There is the heat of this moment with the pandemic and what’s the right way to approach the school calendar, given the crisis.

And there’s the long term, where, as we’ve said again and again, a long summer break just keeps us stuck in an inequitable system. And the answer to one might just be the answer to both of them.

Michael: Right. I think that’s right. We have to address that equity piece not just as it pertains to summer vacation, but, Diane, to all the things that we’ve taken so much for granted in education that really do not serve everyone.

And we can build a better system that serves everyone better, not with a compliance mentality or something like that, but one that creates opportunities for all children to learn. And when we do that, the alternatives that we’ve been advocating for in this podcast make all the more sense. I’m excited to dig into that more next week on our final episode of Class Disrupted. Thanks for joining us.

Michael Horn is the author of numerous books on the future of learning including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He works with a portfolio of organizations to help transform education so that all individuals can build their passions and fulfill their potential.

Diane Tavenner is CEO of Summit Public Schools and a co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She is a lifelong educator and innovator and the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.

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