In 2005 William Fischel published an article entitled Will I see you in September?: An Economic Explanation of the Summer Vacation that also shoots down the notion that summer vacation had anything to do with agriculture. When you think about it, that explanation makes no sense -- vacations would be during planting and harvest, not during the summer, if that were true.
Rather than writing a thorough summary of the article, I'm going to copy and paste his abstract and then some notes I passed out when I presented on this last year -- I think they speak for themselves.
The September-to-June school year is not an agricultural holdover. It is a coordinating device to facilitate geographic mobility. The adoption of age-graded schools, which work best if all students start together, and the growth of worker mobility, which requires extra time and amenable weather to relocate households, produced the standard calendar. A "natural experiment" supporting this explanation is the equator. Summer vacation is a norm both north and south of it. However, American and European families on temporary assignment in the Southern Hemisphere use schools that maintain a Northern Hemisphere school year in order to facilitate relocation to their home countries.
The traditional explanation is that September-June school year developed because children needed to work on the farm during the summer. Fischel attempts to de-bunk this “myth” due to the fact that:
- Agricultural help was not needed the most during the summer but, rather, during planting and harvesting. Besides this, planting and harvesting were at different times in different regions.
- In the mid 1800’s the school year usually ran from about May-August and November-March
Fischel claims the real reasons that that September-June school year developed are:
- With the beginning of graded schools (starting around 1840 in cities and about 1880 in rural areas) meant that teachers and students needed a specific beginning and end of the school year
- Schools all began taking the summer off so that people would have time to move. During the time that September-June started becoming the norm 1880-1920) there was a lot of mobility since the economy was shifting from agrarian to industrial. It is better to both move and go on vacation during these summer months.
Fischel buys these arguments because:
- Schools in other countries run on similar calendars and were obviously not influenced by the same central management. Schools in the southern hemisphere are on break during their summer.
- Foreign families that set up schools in the southern hemisphere run the same school year as their native country rather than adapting to the local norms
I'm willing to buy a combination of Fischel's and Ed Sector's explanations -- in other words, that summer break started both so families could move and so that they could vacation.