THE BLOG
07/01/2011 02:24 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2011

Blame the Hamptons, Not the Harvest...

I'm getting tired of folks blaming farmers for the current 180-day school calendar. The typical explanation for the school calendar we have is that it was created during an era when most of the U.S. population lived on farms and children were given a long summer "vacation" ostensibly so that they could provide free labor and assist their families. In a recent book by Dr. Kenneth Gold, a historian at the City University of New York, he argues that this popular folklore on the origins of the school calendar is not entirely accurate.

While it is certainly the case that children were needed as a source of agricultural labor, many schools in rural communities prior to 1900 regularly closed during the spring for planting and the fall for harvesting. Rather than close schools for the entire growing season, these rural schools frequently offered a "summer session." (Gold, 2002).

Conversely, in large urban areas, particularly in the northeastern United States, it was common for schools to close for a prolonged break every summer. At the turn of the 20th Century, there was a growing desire to flee cities during the summer months, particularly among the more affluent members of society. The heat, threat of communicable diseases, and poor municipal sanitation during the early 1900s helped drive residents out of cities during the summer months and city school calendars generally accommodated the needs and desires of wealthy families.

As compulsory public education grew, state and county officials gradually began to standardize the school calendar to a 180-day, nine-month school year that remains prevalent to this day. Although each state took a slightly different path, they all generally arrived at the same destination -- a 180-day school calendar that met the needs of an increasingly affluent, urban, and mobile population.

The school calendar is not merely an accidental leftover from the agrarian era. The school calendar was not designed to meet the needs of farmers who needed childhood labor through the growing season. Similarly, it was not designed to meet the needs of large numbers of factory workers in America's growing cities. Ironically, the standardization of school calendars began at precisely the same time as the childcare needs of factory workers during the summer months were the greatest. The passage of the first child labor laws in 1916 gave children the freedom from work during the summer, but also left them with little else to do during their vacations.

So who exactly was the school calendar designed to serve? It seems pretty clear that it was a relatively small, but influential group of adults -- not the vast majority of children. Thus, it shouldn't surprise us that the way we continue to schedule schools actually creates educational inequalities and has a disproportionately adverse impact on low-income children and families. It's been "working" that way for a long, long time.