It will not be long before the next school year starts in Germany, for after two months off, many states are starting their school year on August 31st; in states, such as Bavaria, they are starting even later. Parents have already begun to prepare for the Einführungsfeiern (The Induction into elementary school) for the incoming first graders, scheduled for the 30th of August (in most states), which is as sacred as Christmas Day. But that is a different story to be told at another time.
In the United States however, school has already started in most states, such as Minnesota, where I grew up being acquainted with the state’s school system and culture. This start of the school year is the first time the US is starting its school year much earlier than its European counterpart, and it is raising some questions about its effectiveness, for this early start is having a huge impact on other aspects that are typical of a summer break but are being threatened.
How and why might you ask?
Well, turning the clocks back 20 years, we see a different environment. 1994, right before becoming junior in high school in the US, we started our summer break at the beginning of June and ended it on Labor Day. Three months’ time we had, where we could travel the world to see our relatives, work a summer job to earn money for a car, participate in a summer camp, help with the crops, prepare the animals and the like for the county and state fair competitions, and just relax on the beach or on the water. Summer time was a time to meet with friends, become acquainted with new ones, experiment with love with an innocent girl or even cruise around in the car with the music cranked up to the maximum, waking the neighborhood. It was the time when we needed some down time before we went up a level- whether it was the next grade or college. My summer was a spectacular one, as it featured fund-raising for new music uniforms for choir, golfing with friends, cruising around with bass music, and competing in the talent show, where we won on the county level but was levelled in the semi-finals at the state fair. There is no way we can say this if we fast forward to the present.
There are probably some arguments favoring such an early start, such as stockpiling snow days so that we can use them or preparing for aptitude tests in April to compare ourselves with the European and Asian counterparts. Yet when looking at those arguments, I can counter them with the fact that we too had snow days but did not have to make up for them at any cost. And those aptitude tests to determine who is weak in math, reading and writing- studies show that they are hindering the development and own creativity of the individual. A very useful DVD entitled “Alphabet” by Erwin Wagenhofer, shows how streamlining education and enforcing the ideas onto even children have led to an increased rate in suicide, especially in Asia, where children start learning math and economics at the age of three. While such tests, like the PISA are important to determine where we are in the world, the curriculum and the planning should not evolve around it directly. Otherwise we will have more children left behind than 20 years ago.
These early starts will indeed have a tremendous impact on the traditional past-times that we have been used to for ages. The hardest hit will be the county and state fairs, for these events, which last 1-2 weeks on the county level and 2-3 on the state level and feature a display of prized animals and products as well as concerts, will see a substantial decrease in the number of visitors. This will force organizers to consider moving them up a month, which will put pressure on farmers and their families to have them prepared for exhibit by the Fourth of July. Other events that usually happen in August, such as the Rennaissance Festival near the Twin Cities, as well as sporting events, like baseball and softball will also take a hit regarding the loss of attendants and even participants. And lastly, for the students and the teachers, early starts mean less time to recuperate from the stressful school year behind them and especially for teachers, it means less time to upgrade their curriculum and plan for the upcoming school year. Even though most schools rely on text books, with the advancement of technology, many teachers need time to work with them and integrate them into their planning- and this in addition to their own creative brewing of activities useful for their classes.
And for what? The use of snow days AND for preparing for tests that will determine who is “dumb” and who is not?
If there are some ideas on how to deal with the two, speaking from a teacher’s point of view, my advice is to scrap the idea of early starts. Many schools in Germany have 8-11 week summer breaks which cover all of July and August. In Finnland, summer breaks are for 11 weeks from the end of May to the middle of August. Yet this is the same country that stresses individual development over tests and flexibility over stockpiling snow days. Figure in the week breaks both countries have, and they are equivalent to the 12-13 weeks the US has off. While it would be possible to start break in mid-June, which would cover the entire time in July and August, the bottom line is that many of us cannot envision August not being the time for summer break, especially as summer reaches its peak in terms of hot weather, and most of the activities occur during that time.
So my word of advice to the school administrators in the US: look at what your European counterparts are doing for their children and look at what you are doing to your children. Scrap your obsessions of the aptitude tests and look at the individual development of the children. Look at your schedule and how it is impacting events outside the walls of the school building. And scrap the early start and reintroduce the school year starting after Labor Day. Americans have been so used to this tradition and it does have more benefits than drawbacks, especially as far as the children are concerned….