The American education system needs a longer year, but shorter days.

Let's take a page out of Finland's book.

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During the years of the Pre-COVID Era, my family would go through the motions of summer typical of a Virginian nuclear family- camps for my sister and me, a beach trip to the Outer Banks, and ice cream in D.C- before mid-July. In what I call “the dead of summer,” I would squander hours on activities that I neither enjoyed nor benefited from. I certainly am not alone in my perception of the end of summer: a dreary period of waiting for schools to reopen. Why, then, are there nearly three months of unstructured time built into the American education system?

This has to do partly with allowing enough time for long vacations. Families often stress about the time required to plan and go on such a typically long vacation, but science says that shorter vacations provide for the most happiness. Ideal vacations last a week, give or take. With vacations longer than this, costs are scaled up, and constant tourism ends in travel fatigue more often than we would like to think. Our summers need not be so long to accommodate unnecessarily long vacation intervals.

My parents have made certain that I continue with mentally stimulating activities even when school is officially closed, yet I still find myself wondering in late August how I will ever recover all I knew in June. Summer learning loss is the phenomenon by which students lose about a month’s worth of school knowledge over the three-month span from June to late August. Advanced students- the ones who spend their days in college-oriented research and internships- are not exempt from summer learning loss. With shortened summers, Americans could take a step toward minimizing this loss and concentrating more in-class time on new, stimulating content. 

Families of varying economic standings define summer differently. Of course, low-income families  depend on their local public schools for meals and care for their children, so for them, the months out of school are precarious and long. However, it is not only survival needs that tie these families to their schools- sometimes, classes are their only means of children’s social interaction. Months without this do annual harm to the regular upbringing of these less fortunate children, but it does not have to be this way.

With shorter summer vacation times would come a greater amount of days in a given school year, but the silver lining is that individual days would be shorter. Education-based policymakers too often institutions forget that their students have interests in non-academic areas too; these must be granted time on the day-to-day. Students’ interests, social lives and mental health lust for time to explore extracurriculars. Unfortunately, when commute is factored in, this takes a large chunk of time out of the day that cannot afford to compete with mandatory school.

Attention spans are tested as students trudge from class to long class from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., at least where I go to school. Even a decrease in class time of twenty minutes could provide for more effective learning in the time allotted.  Some of the world’s highest ranking students – especially the Finnish- have shorter school days. The key is that they are taught in ways conducive to self-reflection later in the day that doesn’t require physical classroom presence.

Maximum happiness is the product of relatively short, interspersed vacations; the same can be said for school holidays. I like nothing more than a brief, one-day holiday amidst a stressful month of constant studying. One or two days is all it takes for me to feel re-energized. With a longer school year, counties should be more receptive to declaring more snow days and holidays.

At the close of an academic year, students in a system like this would get the same number of hours away from coursework as they would in the system we see today- but without the summer fatigue, learning loss, and boredom.

I acknowledge that it takes a lot for a juggernaut of a traditional system to change, but with the slight tweaking of summer and school day length, American teenagers like me would be far happier.

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