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Why Don’t Kids Go to School in the Summer?

School kids running in elementary school hallway
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

You’ve probably heard some half-hearted explanation about farming and the United States’ agrarian history and accepted it without a second thought, because when you’re a kid, who cares why summer vacation is a thing as long as it’s a thing?

When I grew up, summer vacation took on a different meaning. In my first job as an elementary school teacher, I had lots of conversations with other teachers and administrators about whether or not a summer break was beneficial or harmful to our students.

Before I tackle that question, let’s answer the first question once and for all: why don’t kids go to school in the summer?

The Common Answer

The most common answer for why U.S. students get a summer break goes like this:

For much of its history, the United States had a primarily agrarian economy. Students needed the summers off so they could help their parents plant and harvest food to eat and sell. Summer vacation was less a vacation than the “work” part of a “work-study” program.

That answer is nice and neat. It’s also wrong.

The Correct Answer

While I was researching for this article, I realized the flaw in the whole “summer break was so the poor students could go home and help their parents farm” argument:

When was any system ever designed with the poorest people in mind?

The real reason the United States has summer vacation has nothing to with working-class farming students and everything to do with their wealthier city-dwelling peers.

For most of the nineteenth century, urban and rural areas operated on different school calendars. Kids who lived on farms rarely had the summers off. They did often help their parents with farm work, but that was done during the spring (planting season) and the fall (harvesting season). They actually went to school during the summer when the plants were growing, and there wasn’t as much to do around the farm.

Before the Civil War, most rich kids went to school year-round. However, after the war, cities grew in population. They became denser and hotter. This was before air-conditioning, so summer in the city became a nightmare. Wealthy families headed to the country in droves for fresh air and cool breezes, leaving classrooms empty until the weather cooled down again in the fall.

For decades, urban and rural schools operated on different school schedules. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, reformers pushed for the standardization of a school calendar across the entire United States. That’s when states adopted the standard 180-day calendar, which still exists in most districts today.

Should School Be Out For The Summer?

Now that we know why school is out for the summer, let’s focus on another question: should school be out for the summer?

Expert opinions are mixed. With the advent of air conditioning, escaping for cooler climates during the summer months is no longer necessary. While some people advocate for breaks as a way for students to pursue passions outside of the classroom, others say that long breaks cause children (especially low-income children) to struggle academically. A better solution, they say, would be to have school year-round, with shorter breaks interspersed, to make sure kids don’t lose what they’ve learned.

Just as there is no one answer for why students were off in the summer in the first place, there is no one correct answer for what the school year should look like now. As such, districts are increasingly taking their school calendar into their own hands, so that different areas have different lengths of school years… just as they did in the early nineteenth century.

Hayley Milliman Hayley Milliman
Hayley is a former Teach for America teacher turned curriculum developer and writer. Over the past five years, she's written hundreds of articles on everything from education to personal finance to history. She's the co-author of the book Museum Hack's Guide to History's Fiercest Females. Read Full Bio »