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Telling Tales Over Time: Constructing and Deconstructing the School Calendar

by Joel Weiss & Robert S. Brown - 2003

The September-to-June school calendar has been a fixture of North America for almost a century. Its origins have usually been told as an unexamined tale attributed to features of nineteenth century rural society. We challenge this interpretation by suggesting that multiple pressures arising from increasing urbanization influenced its roots. We present information on the importance of the summer holiday in the development of compulsory schooling in several North American jurisdictions, with the main evidence from Ontario, the most populous province in Canada. We suggest, along with Gold (2002), that this development had wider applicability in several Northeastern and Midwestern American states. Beyond the issue of having an accurate story line, we examine why there has been such resistance in recent times to changing the school year. The school calendar may be another example of an enduring institutional form referred to by Tyack and Tobin as a “grammar of schooling” that resisted fundamental change in the twentieth century. Viewing the school calendar’s ties with changes over time in the construction of other clocks of society may enable us to rethink the format of the contemporary school calendar. Finally, we consider the school calendar as part of a larger, ongoing discussion of what constitutes effectiveness of schools.


Of late, we have asked both professional educators and laypersons alike to reflect on the origins of the present-day school calendar. This traditional calendar, from September to June, with interspersed short periods of holiday usually at Christmas and Easter and the two-month summer holiday, is the only one that most of us in North America have experienced. Invariably, the response has been quickly offered: the present-day school calendar was based on the needs of nineteenth century agricultural society. Many of these folk specifically refer to the summertime of July and August as a special time for working on farms. When queried about the important moments in the rhythm of farm work, many look puzzled as they mention planting and harvesting seasons and the realization that these usually occur in spring and fall, respectively.


Why should we be concerned with the origins, indeed history, of an organizational feature of North American schools that has been stable for almost a century’s duration? Several possibilities come to mind. First, there is the obvious desire to clarify the story, to understand if it has been reproduced as a tale that has gone unexamined. This would provide an opportunity to rectify misunderstandings of the origins of the school calendar and to inquire into the importance of the development of compulsory schooling in the story. So our main purpose in this article is to provide evidence that the construction of the modern school calendar was influenced not by rural concerns but instead through multiple pressures of increased urbanization and pedagogical views in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


A second purpose is to use the discussion of the construction and reification of the school calendar to look at the broader question of educational change and why, with some exceptions, schools have resisted a different construction of their yearly clock and to speculate on the relationship between the calendar and contemporary educational issues. The modern calendar has been an example of certain features of schools that, for the most part, have been resistant to change. Tyack and Tobin (1994) examined how the “grammar of schooling” has remained “remarkably stable” and resistant to change in modern times. They define the grammar of schooling as the regular structures and rules that organize the work of instruction—for example, standardized organizational practices in dividing time and space, classifying students and allocating them to classrooms, and splintering knowledge into subjects. Two such enduring institutional forms discussed by Tyack and Tobin are the graded school and the Carnegie unit of academic credits. The modern school calendar should be considered another such enduring institutional form. But we will show that this was not the case in the nineteenth century, when the calendar was instead highly fluid.


We chose to look at the summer holiday because it was the glue that anchored the construction of the school calendar. Our starting point is with analyses of several sources of historical data for interpreting the development of the summer holidays in Ontario, the most populous Canadian province. These sources are various, including archival material from the Ontario Archives and the Toronto School Board (the Toronto District School Board as of 1998) as well as secondary sources on the history of education in Canada, Ontario, New York State, Massachusetts, and other American states. We suggest that Ontario’s ties with other jurisdictions such as Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York may indicate similar experiences in the histories of their school calendars. We believe there are similarities in the relationships between rural and urban lifestyles and politics and possible connections through some of the architects of the Ontario education system. Gold’s (2002) research on the history of American Summer School has provided verification for New York, Michigan, and Virginia.1 We also explore additional resources for some of the previous and present attempts to reconfigure the calendar to accommodate a more continuous, year-round school organization.


Our view is that the school calendar is one of the great clocks of society (Rakoff 1999) and in important ways is tied to the construction of other great clocks, such as the work clock, the leisure clock, the health clock, which have undergone substantial changes in recent times. An understanding of the relationships among these “clocks” may help to suggest future changes in the ways that we conceive, and use the school calendar. We believe this is timely because it contributes to discussion on what constitutes effectiveness of schools. Among the issues that potentially link the calendar and school effectiveness are limited resources and the rise of choice in schooling, high-stakes testing and resistance to social promotion, and changing expectations in teacher education and professional development. An important part of this discussion focuses on not only variations in school year but also changes in the length of the school week and the school day. Much of the current discussions about calendar change are due to fiscal problems, as states and provinces are coping with massive budget shortfalls. Although there is a spread of two centuries between the beginnings of the origin of the school calendar and the present, several important determiners are common to both eras. In particular, concerns with attendance (who attends and for how long), control (where decisions are made), and priorities (where are resources placed), are driving today’s educational agenda. (This may suggest some reasons why the calendar might be viewed as part of the grammar of schooling.) Several of these issues will be discussed later, but for now we present our interpretation of the origins of the school calendar.




While there may be some variations in the processes involved in arriving at the same configuration for different jurisdictions in North America, a generally fixed calendar was created as the culmination of the process of achieving a relatively uniformcompulsory school year. This translated to a limited range of official instructional days (180–190): the five weekdays are devoted to schoolwork, while weekends are left aside for leisure time. The length of the school day has considerably more variation, with differences between elementary schools and secondary schools. Such variations might be attributed to a number of factors, including extracurricular activities, availability of after-school jobs, distances between school and residences, and accessibility of transportation.


How the school calendar is structured has implications for the way that time is used in schools, and this is a major organizing criterion for curriculum, teaching, and learning. The amount of time spent in school may be related to curriculum coverage, time on task, as well as the kinds of activities engaged in by learners. It has historically been a gauge for determining the work year and conditions of work for teachers and others in the school sector. The act of legislating children to attend school and penalties for nonattendance are indicators of value judgments about its importance in a society. Other judgments about the use of time in determining the purposes of schooling led Eisner (1994) to postulate the concept of a null curriculum to represent potentially missed opportunities when choices are made about how time will be used. The larger issue to be made is that the construction of the school calendar has implications for the way education is organized and may play a role in content, processes, and success in school endeavors.


Interest in the school calendar has been about several features: the distribution of instructional days and holidays, or the number of days spent in school, or the length of the school day. Issues around the quantity of days are part of the story of the development of the compulsory school calendar in North America to be discussed later. For now, it should be mentioned that interest in number of days has become an especially volatile topic in discussions involving comparative achievement test data across countries. The birth of the IEA (International Studies of Educational Achievement) began a culture of assessment involving cross-country comparisons of achievement in different national educational settings (Husen 1967). For example, comparisons with Japan and other countries with the highest achievement scores has led some commentators to attribute such differences to a longer school calendar, such as 240–260 days, and that the United States and Canada might benefit from increasing the length of their calendars (Barrett 1990). However, closer inspection reveals that Japanese students attend schools on Saturday, and for the most part it is for the cleaning of the school and classroom, a form of character building. Issues surrounding length of school day are complex, as they relate to time zones, weather conditions, busing schedules, coordination with other timetables, work, and the like. Although this is a topic of great import, it is the length of the school year that will provide the major focus of this paper. Our justification for this emphasis is that, over the years, the major consideration about the school calendar has been with the length of the year and especially with attempts to recapture variations on year-round schooling.


The group most concerned with the school calendar, the National Association for Year-Round Education (NAYRE), the successor to the National Council on Year-Round Education formed in 1972, has been a powerful advocacy group for calendar change. It has almost single-handedly kept the discourse on calendar change in the public eye through the logic and passion of several of their arguments about educational advantages of calendar flexibility, its educational and professional development programs, and a very astute political action component. It has clearly influenced the report from the National Education Commission on Time and Learning (1994).


NAYRE has written extensively about the need for changing the traditional calendar to provide flexible education to suit both local needs and continuous learning for students. In a primary sourcebook on the history of year-round education, Glines (1995, 40) recognizes that the rural tale is inappropriate for understanding the formation of the calendar: “Ironically critics of the 180 day school year—those who want a 220 day extended year—refer to the present required attendance days as a throwback to an agrarian economy which never really existed. Thus their arguments have been in error.” He then proceeds to discuss reasons for the short rural school year, including the need for child labor on farming: “Since the heaviest work loads generally fell during the spring and summer, farmers resented having big, strong boys sitting in school when labor was in short supply. One justification for long summer vacations was the requirement for child labor.” Glines goes on to report that special provisions were made in those communities where fall harvesting was heavy. Although Glines may at first be insistent that the rural tale was in error, he then claimed that a strong justification for the summer holiday was work on the farm, even though the planting was done in spring and most of the harvesting was done in the fall—a curious contradiction that inadvertently reinforces the tale.


The work-on-the-farm origin of the summer vacation is reiterated in much of the discussion in educational writings on the calendar. Thus, Stover (1989) calls the ten-month school year the “old agrarian calendar summer.” Writing in the New York Times Magazine about the present summer holidays, Margaret Talbot (30 July 2000) concludes that “it’s true that summer vacation is a mere artifact of the days when farming played a bigger role in our economy, but by now it’s a precious artifact, with an accretion of sweet associations and a sense of possibility all its own.” In a brief for the Century Foundation, Teixera and Bloniarz write, “The standard U.S. school schedule, . . . has its origins in the agricultural calendar, when children worked on the farm after school and during the summer. This no longer seems appropriate in an era in which both fathers and mothers typically work outside the home and when the economy seems to be demanding more advanced skills from U.S. students” (2000, 1).


The taken-for-granted nature of the traditional school year appears to convert to passionate defense of its merits when some communities are confronted with the possibility of change (Merino 1983; Peltier 1991; Shields and Oberg 2000). In conducting research in school districts on policy deliberations about year-round education, Weiss (1993, 1995) found that most parents and other community members are not open to even contemplation of the issue. In each instance, the politics became so entrenched that these initiatives were doomed to failure. This occurs in spite of the many advantages offered by proponents of year-round education (YRE). The major reasons put forward as advantages to the traditional calendar are important issues in our society. The economic advantages are related to the increasing costs of building new schools with fewer resources for capital improvements. Potential savings accrue from using the school building over the full year, allowing for additional students and teachers to use the school during times when it would ordinarily be closed. Among the educational benefits posited for year-round education is that by structuring the relationship between instructional days and vacations so that the long summer hiatus is avoided, there would be fewer problems of learning retention, especially for academically at-risk students (Cooper 1996). Arguments for enhanced quality of life stem from a belief that more frequent vacations would provide more opportunities for families to spend time together (Weiss 1993).



But even if the prevailing tale has been a myth and we can suggest a more historically accurate narrative, why should anyone but historians care? Many have raised the issue of the relevancy of the present-day school calendar to contemporary life and schooling.2 These ideas are indicative of several prescriptions for alleviating crowded schools, relieving pressure on working parents, and creating more efficacious teaching and learning situations (Teixera and Bloniarz 2000). In spite of these and other earlier good intentions, the school calendar remains remarkably the same for most schools in North America.


Why is change to the school calendar such a controversial issue? The answer may seem transparent at first thought, but the underlying reasons are much more opaque. Partly, it is an engrained resistance to change, change that would interrupt the rhythms of other parts of people’s lives, namely work, leisure, daycare provisions and other social institutional arrangements. The argument is that the school calendar has influenced the development of other institutions in which our lives have become so dependent. Valpy (1995a) suggested the following:


In the larger community . . . we have organized ourselves over 150 years so that only during the summer months do we have to accommodate large numbers of children on the loose. We have built entire economic and social structures for that purpose-which have implications for how local government and law-enforcement functions, on the economies of scale of maintaining schools, on providing buses for schools, on child specific industries such as summer camps, on economic operations such as small businesses that depend on students for summer help. (p. A3)


He concluded a two-part series in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, with the following: “ We might have created a school year to make farmers happy, but it now touches a lot more people than farmers” (Valpy 1995b, A2).


On the surface, this seems plausible—the seeds of resistance to calendar change lie in the reorganization of other social institutions around the rural school calendar and how, the other great clocks of society impinged upon the school clock (Rakoff 1999). Additionally, schooling as a social institution had become a major economic player, with whole industries dependent upon its rhythms and continuity.


Yet the previous dialogue operates on the assumption that the summer holidays originated out of our rural past. But what happens to this discussion if the summer holidays had relatively recent urban causes? There is evidence from Ontario historical records that the idea for summer holidays originated in the cities and towns, that the reasons were complex but mostly due to urban concerns and that the farming community did not always consider an extended vacation during the summer to be in their interests, and sometimes fought it. The Ontario example shows the origins of the summer holidays in an entirely different light. To what extent does this enhance the changing dialogue about the role of the summer vacation in today’s society? Let us turn to some concrete information that allows us to question the myth and compare Ontario data with American sources.



The creation of the school calendar, indeed the modern school structure in Ontario, can be seen over a seventy-five year period from about 1840 to 1915. We have used data from two jurisdictions: the province of Ontario, formerly known as the colony of Upper Canada and alternately as Canada West for some years before Confederation in 1867,3 and Toronto, site of the province’s largest and most influential urban school board and was the province’s capital from 1793 on. Although Ontario had a highly centralized educational bureaucracy, latitude was given to the towns and cities to make their own policies. In some ways, the earlier provincial policies affected the rural areas even more than the urban jurisdictions because of the discrepancy in the relative wealth and ability to raise local taxes. For the most part, policy on compulsory schooling was formulated for the Common School (i.e., elementary school), but over time it increasingly included secondary schools.



The Upper Canada School Act of 1841 has no mention of holidays. In fact, the direction at that time was keeping schools open for as long as possible: that schools “shall have been open at least nine months, during the year past” (Hodgins, 4: 48–55). This was, after all, the early days of the public school system, where it was difficult to achieve basic minimum requirements such as constructing schools, keeping schools open, and having students attend more than a few times a year. One of the key statistics kept by Ontario bureaucrats was the average number of months that the schools were kept open. In 1846, J. George Hodgins noted that, of the twenty districts in Ontario, Dalhousie District kept the schools open 12 months, Simcoe District for 11.5 months, Ottawa District for 11 months, and the Home District (now the Greater Toronto Area) for 10.25 months (Hodgins, 6: 254).


The desired outcome was year-round schooling. This was clearly enunciated in 1842 by Robert Murray (who as assistant superintendent of schools was head of Ontario schools) when he wrote “schools should be kept open all the year round, with the exception of five, or six, weeks of recess, or holiday” (Hodgins, 4: 307).


The first time the summer holiday was mentioned in Common Schools (i.e., elementary schools) was in the General Regulations and Instructions of 1846: “There shall be a Vacation of two weeks during some part of the Quarter ending on the 30th of September, at such time as the District Superintendent of Schools may direct; or, if he shall not direct any particular time, it may be at such time as shall be preferred by the Trustees and Teacher.” As well, there was Christmas holiday of eight days and an Easter holiday of eight days (Hodgins, 6: 301). From this, it is obvious that the summer holiday was an unimportant administrative break between terms. Also, there was flexibility in the dates of the holiday set by the local superintendent, usually in conjunction with local trustees and teacher. (This was a time when the majority of schools were one-room, one-teacher affairs and each school had its own board of trustees.) In 1850 the Midsummer holiday was specified to take place over the first two weeks of August (Annual Report of 1853, “General Regulations for the Organizational, Government and Discipline of Common Schools in Upper Canada, prescribed by the Council of Public Instruction on the 5th day of August, 1850”, 166.)


In 1860 the summer holiday was doubled to four weeks—but only for urban centers (i.e., cities, towns, and incorporated villages). The holiday was specifically kept at two weeks for rural boards. This was the start of a tug of war that would go on for more than half a century, with the urban board holiday being extended first, then the rural board holiday being extended years or decades later. However, grammar or high schools did not appear to have the same restrictions. The Council of Public Instruction’s 1854 requirements for grammar schools specified a summer vacation (elsewhere called the Long Vacation) between the close of the spring term at the end of June and the beginning of summer term on the second Monday of August (Report of 1854, Appendix E, 157).


In 1871, Egerton Ryerson, head of Ontario’s school system and historically portrayed as its architect, introduced the Education Act that is traditionally considered one of the most important Canadian educational acts because it brought compulsory education to Ontario. Here the summer vacation was specifically mentioned in legislation for the first time: to go for a month (the 15th of July to the 15th of August) for the common or elementary schools and six weeks (the 1st of July to the 15th of August) for the secondary schools. Thus, the rural holiday was now doubled, but both urban and rural elementary boards had a holiday two weeks shorter than that of secondary schools.


The parity of rural and urban elementary boards lasted only a few years. An 1877 amendment to the Education Act specified that for any location with a high school, the elementary vacation was lengthened by two weeks—that is, it became the same as that of high schools, from July 14 to the end of August. (At this time, with five percent or less of the Ontario population attending high schools, such schools were usually located in urban centers—certainly all large and medium-sized urban centers had high schools). For all other public school boards (i.e., rural and smaller urban centers without high school), the vacation was lengthened by a week in July and two days in August.


But three years later, an additional amendment allowed those rural boards so inclined to start their schools on August 3rd rather than August 18th, two weeks less than the urban boards. This meant that the holiday in those rural boards could be less than a month (July 8th to August 2nd), which is two weeks less than the 1877 legislation. Although there is (as usual) no explanation for this change, one reasonable explanation is that it was introduced in reaction to the rural interests, who resisted a further reduction of their summer term. Moreover, there was a price—boards would not receive direct funding for the time. This sounds very much like a political compromise (i.e., a rural board was allowed to keep its schools open but only if it found the money to do so from existing revenues).


In 1885, a new education act slightly changed this. For high schools and for elementary boards in cities, towns, and incorporated villages (i.e., urban boards) the holiday was now between the first Friday in July and the last Monday of August. The summer holiday for those boards was thus close to the modern two-month summer holiday (six to seven weeks rather than eight weeks). The summer holiday for boards without high schools (i.e., rural boards and those in smaller urban centers) was now between the first Friday in July and the third Monday in August. Thus, the rural boards had a holiday one to two weeks shorter than that of urban boards4 but lost the option of two weeks that gained back in 1880.


This pattern maintained itself, with some fiddling, for over a quarter century. In 1891 the summer holiday was extended a week backwards—starting at its modern beginning of the end of June—but the distinction between urban and rural boards continued: the holiday ended at the last Monday in August for urban boards but the third Monday in August for rural boards. In the Education Act of 1909 the school holiday of urban schools became the modern holiday of two full months (between the end of June and beginning of September) while the holiday of rural boards remained at six weeks—but only for a few years. Between 1911 and 1913 the Ministry of Education legislated the modern summer holiday to all boards, rural and urban alike.5


In all the legislative changes between 1841 and 1913, there was never any reason given for the lengthening of the summer vacation or any discussion of why it was being done. In fact, there was never any acknowledgment that the vacation was being lengthened at all. Each piece of legislation merely gives the dates and duration of the vacation period; only by examining all the legislation together can the trend be seen.


Despite the lack of any context, two things seem clear. First, the length of the summer holiday increased as the proportion of urban centers in Ontario increased. In 1850, with year-round schooling and a two-week midsummer midterm holiday, Canada West was a predominately rural collection of farmers and farming communities; by 1913, when the summer holidays had assumed their final form, Ontario had a predominately urban culture. Secondly, the legislation shows a difference between urban and rural centers: rural authorities appear to have pursued an ultimately futile rearguard action against the summer holidays. Far from being the instigators of the holidays, it would appear that the farming communities were its chief opponents.



The Toronto Board of Education was formed by the amalgamation of several small Toronto school boards in 1844. As the board for Ontario’s capital city and financial and industrial center, it was the province’s largest board throughout the nineteenth and until the mid-twentieth century.6From examination of several sources, it is possible to reconstruct the development of the summer holiday in the middle part of the nineteenth century.

Table 1 and Figure 1 show the Ontario rural, Ontario urban, and Toronto Board summer holidays between 1850 and 1912. It is clear that the evolution of the summer holiday in the Toronto Board was similar to the structure of Ontario legislation as described previously—except that the Toronto Board holidays clearly predate changes in legislation. In 1850 the board had a two-week holiday in early July. But by 1856 the board adapted a month-long August holiday that would last until 1869, when it was lengthened to six weeks. Between 1869 and 1876 the holiday time varied between five and seven weeks. From 1877 until 1884 the holidays went from the first Friday in July to the first Monday in September. These changes meant that for approximately three decades, between 1856 and 1884, the Toronto Board holidays were usually one or two weeks longer than Ontario legislation for urban boards. With the passing of the 1885 legislation, the Toronto Board holiday was essentially the same as that of other Ontario urban boards.


In 1889, an attempt to extend the Toronto summer holidays beyond the two months of July and August was thwarted by a group of trustees (Board Minutes, 4 July 1889, 82; 5 September 5 1889, 99.).7 This signaled the completion of Toronto’s pattern of extending the holidays.8 Finally, in 1909, with the Ontario legislation calling for a July and August summer holiday for urban boards, the Toronto Board holidays were the same as those legislated for other urban boards; and, as noted, by 1913 the two month holiday was universally mandated across all Ontario schools.


It might appear that the Toronto Board, through having holidays that exceeded mandated holidays, was ignoring the Ontario school legislation. In fact, Ontario legislation mandated minimum, not maximum, summer vacation requirements. Thus, while a board had to shut down for the vacation dates as mandated in legislation, it could add any additional vacation time it wished to. This was noted in 1895 Board Minutes, when in response to an inquiry, Deputy Minister of Education John Millar stated, “It has always been understood by the Education Department that a Board of Trustees, if it deems it expedient, may extend the vacation or grant holidays for any purpose” (Board Minutes, 29 August 1895, 121).9 An example of this can be seen three decades earlier: in early September 1862, the board was able to summarily announce a week-long vacation to take place at the end of September 1862 (officials were worried that students would skip school to attend the Provincial Exhibition taking place that week, so they cancelled the classes).


We have direct evidence that the provincial authorities were aware of what the Toronto Board was doing. On Friday July 19, 1869, when the board extended its summer holiday by two weeks and closed down in mid-July for the first time, one of the guest speakers present at closing ceremonies was the Rev. Dr. Ryerson—Egerton Ryerson, head of the Ontario public school system (Porter Diaries, 19 July 1869).10


There are no reasons provided by officials for the extension of the Toronto summer holiday. The key archive sources—minutes, diaries of officials like Superintendent Porter—chronicle the actions taken but not the reasons why they were taken. This may be because nineteenth century Toronto board records have suffered attrition over the years, including a major fire in 1856, various moves of the central office, and the mass selling of documents as scrap paper during a 1920 economy measure. Material with clearly enunciated reasons for the extension of the summer holiday has disappeared or remains to be discovered somewhere in the Toronto or Ontario Archives.11

Table 1. Toronto, Ontario urban and Ontario rural summer holidays, 1850–191212



Ontario Urban

Ontario Rural


End 1


Begin 2 term

End 1


Begin 2


End 1


Begin 2 term

























































































































































































Figure 1 provides a graphical interpretation to Table 1, with the missing years for Ontario Rural and Ontario Urban filled in (e.g., the number of days for Rural from 1861 to 1870 is given as that given in the 1860 legislation). It clearly shows the gradual increase of the summer holiday between 1850 and 1912, with the legislated Ontario urban board holidays in the middle, between the legislated Ontario rural board holidays and the documented Toronto board holidays.



So far, we have looked at the structure of how the summer holidays were gradually extended in urban boards, followed by (possibly resistant) rural boards. Two petitions found in the Ontario Archives provide some context to our contention that the traditional calendar is an urban invention. The Brockville Petition provides the reasons for the doubling of the urban holidays in 1860. The 1886 Grey County Petition sheds some light on the resistance of rural boards to this city-based trend.

The Brockville Petition of 1860

This petition is important because it is the smoking gun behind the 1860 provincial extension of the mid-summer holidays from two to four weeks in what we would call urban schools—that is, schools in cities, towns, and incorporated villages. (Brockville is an urban area east of Toronto and close to the Quebec border and was incorporated in 1832 as the first urban municipality in the province.) This was the single largest increase in the summer vacation at any one time and was the first time that rural and urban boards were provided with different vacation times. The Council of Public Instruction for Upper Canada (which provided rules and regulations for Ontario education) made the change in 1860 after receiving and discussing the petition.


The petition itself was targeted at urban rather than rural schools. In a revealing cover letter, Victoria School Principal J. H. Johnson thought the suggested changes were not applicable to school sections (i.e., schools in rural districts). Furthermore, Johnson noted that many city and town boards had extended the summer holidays already, in defiance of the Common School regulations: “no doubt they have done so principally from such considerations as are urged in the Petition.” This would hardly be a surprise to the Council of Public Instruction, given that (as noted previously) the Toronto Board had already extended the holidays precisely in the suggested manner in 1856, four years previous to the petition. As well, members of the Council and of the Department of Education were closely connected to the Toronto Board, so they would have been quite aware of what was going on.


The Brockville Petition included three key reasons for extending the urban summer holidays of common schools: high absenteeism during the hot and unhealthy summer months due to epidemics, vacations, and general truancy of students; the psychological well-being of students, that is, the need for an extended break after a year of intense study; and the perceived unfairness to common-school teachers of the difference between the year-round schooling of common schools and the much longer vacations of colleges, universities, and grammar schools.

The Rural County Revolt of 1886 Against the Summer Holidays

This petition is the polar opposite of the Brockville Petition of 1860, in that it clearly illustrates the opposition of a good part of rural Ontario to the extension of the summer holidays. In 1886, a petition originating from the Grey County Council was submitted to the Ministry of Education by at least thirteen county councils across Ontario (from Kent in the west to Carleton in the east). This took place a year after the 1885 Education Act had legislated seven- to eight-week holidays for urban boards and six-week holidays for rural boards and had eliminated the option of a four-week summer holiday for rural boards. The petition demonstrated the unhappiness of the rural interests over a summer holiday being imposed against their will. It notes that the “midsummer Holidays as prescribed, are not suitable to the requirements of the rural districts” and that “a general feeling exists among the parents of our constituencies that the Vacations are too long.” The key reason given was that of attendance: many students, because of age, long distance from school, and winter weather (“the storms of the long winter”) could not attend except in the summer. Thus, the summer holidays, far from being a boon, eliminated the best time that rural students could attend school “as regards time and weather.” (See Figure 2 for a map showing the counties that signed the 1886 Grey County Petition.)

Note. Figure 2 shows the location of counties that signed the 1886 Grey Petition. Note that while Ontario is a much larger province, southern Ontario, which is shown here, possessed the vast majority of the province’s population, and does to this day. (It was also the basis of the original colony of Upper Canada.) York County, which contained Toronto, did not sign the petition. Two counties with cities did sign the petition: Carleton (home of Ottawa) and Wentworth (home of Hamilton). However, those county councils were dominated by rural townships. The geographical pattern shows that the petition was signed by representatives by counties scattered across southern Ontario.


Following this rural county action, legislation in 1891 and 1909 increased the urban holiday by one and then two weeks; the rural holiday was slightly lengthened in 1891 but remained unchanged for the next two decades. It was only on the verge of World War I, in 1912–1913, that the full two-month summer holiday became compulsory for rural schools in Ontario.


In summary, an examination of four different sources clearly demonstrates that rather than being the cause of the Ontario summer holiday, the farming communities were in opposition to it. Legislation established the first minimum school holidays for elementary schools in 1850—a short two-week break between terms, the same as at Christmas. It would appear that, at this time, Ontario authorities were most interested in ensuring that the new Ontario schools remained open long enough to ensure an education to those students who could actually attend.


In an 1894 letter to Minister of Education (later Premier) George Ross, publisher J. Frank Wilson recalled that Ross had told him that the “country people” were in opposition to extending the summer holiday, and thought it was already too long. Wilson, on the other hand, thought that people in the city would want the summer holiday “considerably lengthened” (Wilson 1894). Certainly, the urban origins of the summer holiday are evident in the holiday schedule of the Toronto Board of Education. Between 1850 and 1884, Ontario’s largest Board lengthened its summer vacation such that it usually exceeded by one or more weeks the legislated minimum for urban boards; by 1885 Toronto had implemented the full two-month holiday. Thus, it is clear that the origins of the two-month summer holiday can be found in the developing urbanization of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Ontario.13



Ontario education has traditionally been highly centralized, with, at the same time, a fair degree of administrative latitude given to individual school boards such as Toronto. As a result, it becomes a good place to observe the development of the summer holiday. An important proviso about this finding is that it assumes that the development of holidays in Ontario is not anomalous to this location but could be extrapolated to other American and Canadian jurisdictions. How do we know that this is plausible?


One reason is that nineteenth century American and Canadian educational authorities were actively involved in what is now called comparative education—the comparison of similar educational systems for the purpose of initiating or modifying policies and practices. Noah and Eckstein (1969) described five stages in the development of the field of comparative education. Stages Two and Three, originating in the nineteenth century, seem appropriate to our discussion. Stage Two describes the process of journeys being made abroad by educational practitioners “to discover information useful for charting the course of education in their own countries” (p. 4). These educational policymakers went back to their own jurisdictions to write extensive descriptions about such matters as teaching methods and organizational strategies that would be appropriate to their local needs. Stage Three was an expansion on this activity to systematic exchange of such information to others doing the same work in other countries. This sharing of information across international boundaries was seen as useful for improving educational practices around the world.


According to Wilson (1999, 41–77), Ontario has a long history of using comparative education to formulate policy and practice. Wilson singled out Egerton Ryerson, Ontario’s head of education noted earlier. Any reading of Ontario educational documents of the time shows that Ontario authorities were constantly comparing their actions to those of educational systems in key American midwestern and Eastern states, such as New York, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Ohio. Ontario’s educational record is that of an important, but not primary, innovator: its leaders rarely introduced completely new ideas but would take innovations and practices already pioneered elsewhere. For example, James L. Hughes, the Toronto Board’s head from 1874 to 1912, visited Philadelphia for details on its new kindergarten classes before introducing kindergarten to Canada.14 Given this record, Ontario educational leaders were probably adapting an already existing American trend when they introduced the summer holiday.15


There is certainly evidence that the American urban development of the summer holiday was consistent with what happened in Ontario. According to Shepard and Baker (1977, 4), Buffalo, Detroit, and Philadelphia had school systems that were open from between 251 and 260 days per year in 1840. This would indicate that these cities had very short vacation periods.16 But by 1889, these cities, like all other American cities visited by Toronto trustees during an inspection trip, were on the modern two-month summer holiday of July and August (Toronto Board Minutes 1889, Appendix, 120). For at least Detroit, Buffalo, and Philadelphia, it is clear that the development of the summer holiday is virtually parallel to that of Toronto, changing from year-round schooling from the middle part of the century to a two-month holiday by the late nineteenth century.


Gold (2002) shows the evolution of the summer vacation in Detroit and New York City in ways that clearly parallel Toronto. Detroit’s 1842 school year had four quarters with one week of vacation after each and short recesses after Christmas and during the summer. In 1849 this changed to a three-term calendar with four weeks off in August; by 1860 the vacation was eight weeks during July and August. Changes in the summer vacation in New York City was a bit more complex because of dual boards of education that merged in 1853, but it is clear that in the 1840s New York City had year-round schooling, with a three-week summer break in August. By 1853 there was a five-week break from the end of July until the beginning of September. By 1872 the break had been extended, from the end of July to the beginning of July, with a vacation of nearly two months.


Thus, the urban origins of what we now call the summer holiday appears to be consistent in both Ontario and in American cities. However, what about the countryside? Glines (1995) shows that when common schools were founded in Massachusetts in the seventeenth century, they were supposed to be open year-round and were only closed when finances did not permit them to remain open. Theautobiography of Mark Twain makes it clear that this was still the case when he was growing up in rural Missouri before the Civil War. Until he was eleven or twelve years of age, Twain spent several months of each year of his youth at an uncle’s home in Florida, Missouri.


The country schoolhouse was three miles from my uncle’s farm. It stood in a clearing in the woods and would hold about twenty-five boys and girls. We attended the school with more or less regularity once or twice a week, in summer, walking to it in the cool of the morning by the forest paths and back in the gloaming at the end of the day. (Twain 1959, 12)


In another part of the autobiography describing school in Hannibal, Missouri, Twain claims that if he wanted to describe the schoolhouse perfectly, he “could save [himself] the trouble by conveying the description of it to these pages from Tom Sawyer. [He] can remember the drowsy and inviting summer sounds that used to float through the open windows from that distant boy—Paradise, Cardiff Hill, and mingle with the murmurs of the studying pupils and make them the more dreary by contrast” (Twain 1959, 69).


This shows that at least in rural Missouri of the 1840s, school in the summer appeared to be a matter of course—and so was low attendance, as testified by the author of that famous truant Huck Finn. The system Twain described would not be out of place in Ontario, and perhaps in many other American rural jurisdictions, at the time.


The idea of a summer vacation may have been irrelevant to rural districts because funding problems often left the schools closed more often than they were open. Like mid-nineteenth century Ontario, the concern of many states was in trying to keep the schools open as long as possible as a way of providing employment for teachers (Kliebard 1995). Often, this was not long. As of 1885, Nebraska laws specified that public school students must be taught at least nine months of the year in districts having more than 200 students, six months in those having 75 to 200 students, and only three months in those with less than 75 students. In Minnesota at the same time, state statute specified that the terms of schools were “not less than four months each year” (United States Bureau of Education 1886, 53, 60).


For midwestern states at least, the summer holidays were not an issue, because township boards had complete control over the school calendar. According to Fuller (1982, 47), the times of keeping the school open were set each year at an annual meeting held each spring or summer, according to state statute. For farmers at this meeting, “there was no state bureaucracy to order children throughout the state to begin and end school on certain days. So complete was the Midwestern farmers’ control over their school system that they determined not only the number of months they would have school beyond that required by the state, but also the dates when the school terms would start and finish.” Fuller gives an example of a Wisconsin school district which in 1881, set a school year of seven months, with four months of the winter term beginning on the second Tuesday of November and three months for the summer term beginning on the first Monday in May. Thus, for that year, the school district would not be open from early August until early November and from February until April. These were not so much holidays as gaps. But the times when the schools were open and closed might change the next year, depending on such variables as the cost of fuel for the winter, the harvest, and the weather.17


This appeared to be the case even in more established states, such as New York. The 1856 Code of Public Instruction of the State of New York noted that there was a minimum requirement of schools being open six months a year to receive state funding. The code noted that the state recognized two “terms” per year, “while in practice there is one summer and parts of two winter terms” (p.252). The exception to this were the schools of the larger cities, “which are kept open during the whole year, with brief intervals of vacation” (State of New York 1856, 127).18


By 1872, rural schools in New York State were open longer than before but still less than the cities (which by now had adapted the two-month summer holiday).19 In 1872, the state superintendent of public instruction reported to the New York legislature that the average length of school terms in the cities was 41.3 weeks (i.e., the same as at present or perhaps slightly longer), while the length of school terms in the rural districts was 32.4 weeks (i.e., New York country schools were open about two months less than New York city schools; New York State Educational Journal 1873, 286; 1872, 31).


This U.S. urban/rural gap narrowed by the beginning of the twentieth century (Cubberley 1922, 101) but was still pronounced in some states. In the North Atlantic division of United States (consisting of Eastern Seaboard states north of Delaware) the average length of term for urban schools was 188.5 days, within the range of modern schools, but the average length of term for rural schools was 159.7, a difference of 29 days. The greatest urban/rural discrepancy among the North Atlantic division was Pennsylvania, with an average urban term of 187.6 days and an average rural term of 149.4 days. The greatest state discrepancy in all the U.S. states was South Carolina, with an average urban term of 183 days and an average rural term of 94.5 days, for a difference of 88.5 days (Monahan 1913, 23).


It would appear that in the era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries school patterns in states were probably parallel to those in Ontario. We offer this view because the number of total days the city schools were open fell from year-round to ten months, while the number of total days that rural schools were open rose from a few months to most of the year. In such circumstances, it is probable that the origins of the American summer vacation took place in the cities, as Gold (2002) also surmises.




Assuming the Ontario example to be indicative of northeastern and midwestern education in the nineteenth century, it would appear that the modern public school calendar to be an amalgam of several clocks of society, the rural and urban clocks, each with its own rhythm, cadence, and priorities. Gold makes the distinction between two visions of time: cyclical-natural time and linear-commodified time. The traditional view of calendar worked around the natural rhythms of the seasons and was part of the “social fabric of rural life”(Gold 2002, 106). The invention of the clock allowed for the creation of manmade calendars so that the school year could be consistent with views on work and leisure more suited to urban life. These different views corresponding to rural and urban areas, or broader geographical clocks, intersected with other important clocks, such as the work clock, the leisure clock, and the health clock.


As people left the farms for the larger urban areas, concerns developed about overcrowded conditions, potential health problems, and the propensity for idle working class youth to become involved in a life of crime or at the least to become indigent citizens. On the economic side, urban youngsters formed a cheap labor pool—child exploitation became a serious problem for social reformers who believed that children deserved to have a childhood. Others saw such a pool as a threat to adult employment since in many instances children and adults might compete for the same jobs. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, schools were seen as places to ameliorate many of these concerns. This was a harbinger: the use of the school system as an institution to ameliorate social problems. For example, some of the problems of urban students could be addressed through employing school nurses to conduct general checkups, to help in lice control, and to help prevent disease through vaccination. The summer climate in the cities led to the development of vacation schools.


Like the vacation playground, the vacation school arose from the peculiar needs of city life and the long summer vacation of American schools. Both were developed largely as constructive educational undertakings to combat the evils of the gang, the poor home, and the street (Monroe 1913, 701). Some of these schools in less-crowded areas, such as Toronto’s High Park and Victoria Park, would allow children to obtain relief from the heat. However, most of them were located in school buildings, and field trips were frequent activities. This illustrates yet another way that school was a control mechanism to ensure that youth would be off the streets. The use of the school as an agent for socializing the children of immigrants and other urban youth was evidence of politicians’ expanded commitment to learning as a safeguard for the interests of the state (Tyack et al. 1987, 23).


A central component of the urban school clock can be found in the debates over school attendance of students and consequent compulsory school legislation. In Ontario (and probably elsewhere) attendance rates were one of the principle means for distributing public funds. Since the rates were published, they also became a means of determining system accountability in much the same way that performance on standardized tests influence perceptions of school system accountability in today’s school boards. The first head of the Toronto Board resigned over his inability to increase the attendance rate (Brown 1999, 50–51). And, in the nineteenth century, the attendance of students was, on the whole, quite low. Houston and Prentice (1988, 215) explain irregularity of attendance as the “price mid-nineteenth century educators had to pay for their astonishing feat of enrolling most of the province’s children in school. . . . Enrolling in school was the first step; attending frequently depended on whether or not the child was needed elsewhere.” This irregularity of attendance—and its very real results on the public school system and the system’s leaders—explains why, according to Katz (1975), securing the regular and punctual attendance of all children at school was the central educational problem of the nineteenth century.


More modern research has shown the powerful relationship between economics and nineteenth century school attendance. Davey (1975) concludes that “those factors which contributed to poverty and economic insecurity—trade depressions, crop failure, transient work patterns and seasonal employment—largely determined the regularity of school attendance throughout the province.” Likewise, Bamman (1975) makes the case that economic factors of the 1850s and 1860s resulted in lower enrolments of the Toronto Board in the 1850s and 1860s, while the improved attendance of the 1870s was due to the improved standard of living among the working classes. However, school administrators looked at other, noneconomic means to stabilize and increase attendance. First, there was a determined attempt to investigate, alleviate, and finally punish truancy, the willful absenteeism of students. In Toronto, repeated research showing truancy as an insignificant cause of irregular attendance did not stop increasingly strong (and ineffective) punishments. Secondly, there was advocacy from the 1860s on for compulsory attendance legislation to force all younger students to attend school for at least part of the school year. This had a more practical outcome than the retributive truancy legislation, although Bamman and others are skeptical if compulsory legislation like that of the 1871 Education Act had any important effect.20


Although there is no direct evidence at this time, it is likely that efforts by urban forces to regulate the school calendar (including, but not only, the summer holidays) make a third component to this regulatory strategy. Certainly, the authors of the Brockville Petition were quick to connect their request for a greater summer holiday to issues of irregular school attendance. This may indicate that school authorities were considering it as a policy to be extended to the urban schools. Ultimately, equilibrium seems to have developed between the length of keeping the schools open and the expectations of having students attending the school.


While the end result was the development of a more or less shared compulsory calendar, it is clear that initially North America began with two distinctly different school clocks. The rural calendar was influenced by a farm clock very different from the urban work clocks. The family was very much the center of control, with the well-being of the family farm the responsibility of all family members, including children. The ideology of liberalism was dominant, with the emphasis on individual freedom and local control. Parents exercised full control over school attendance, and no infrastructure of police/truant officers was deemed necessary to enforce attendance because that was a parental responsibility.


For example, an inspector in Huron County (located in the agricultural heartland of Ontario) differentiated between willful truancy, which was thought a moral failing of individual students, and working on the farm in his 1896 report:


Truancy is not on the increase in West Huron. There are a few cases of truancy every term in our town and village schools, but in the rural schools truancy does not exist. The majority of children enjoy attending school, and remain away only when circumstances compel them to do so. The average attendance during September and October this year was very low on account of many children being detained at home to exist in picking the vast crop of apples. (Ontario Report of 1896, 159)


The main agents of socialization were parents, clergy, and local opinion. Many were skeptical that much formal schooling was necessary for the circumscribed life of the farm.


In contrast, there were a greater number of societal clocks influencing the development and maintenance of the urban school clock. The length of the calendar was very much a production of the legal clock employed to control urban life. The school became responsible for functions ordinarily handled by the family and church in rural areas.


The development of a stable, compulsory school calendar for both urban and rural areas was a result of a more centralized political system increasingly developed over the latter part of the nineteenth, and the early twentieth, centuries. This demonstrated the rising importance of towns and cities and of manufacturing and nonagrarian commercial interests. Educational bureaucracies were being created and the result was the development of standard procedures in curriculum, instruction and assessment.


The impact of the development of a compulsory school calendar on rural areas included a longer school year and less freedom for parents to determine when their children could attend school. On the other hand, urban boards were already starting to feel financial pressures of such a long, almost year-round system. The increasingly bureaucratic nature of the schools came at a price, and eventually city boards began to cut back on the number of required days, and by the second decade of the twentieth century, these were lowered by as much as rural schools had increased.


This new school year has since become what future generations have come to know as traditional. During the six decades of the formation of this calendar, the interests of the two cultures sometimes clashed over the length of the summer vacation, as evidenced by the Grey County petition mentioned earlier.21


The physical and psychological health of children justified the extension of the summer vacation. Summers in cities and towns in Ontario and the Midwest were commonly held to be times of danger:


The midsummer being the period of epidemics, and most fruitful of diseases generally, many children are either kept at home, or are sent out into the country, or visit the various watering places with their parents while others, especially among the poorer classes, are allowed to divert themselves in a variety of ways after the expiration of the holidays now granted by Your Honorable Council under the authority of the Common School Act. The result is, that for two or three weeks of the short term now allowed as holidays has expired, the attendance of pupils in our city and town common schools, is frequently diminished by fifty per cent, and sometimes considerably more; and that, too, amongst a class of children generally the most benefited by school instruction. (Victoria Public School, Brockville, 1860)


Since many or most students were not attending during the hottest and most dangerous weeks of the summer, the Brockville petition suggested making the best of a bad lot by closing the schools outright during those weeks. At a time before air conditioning, with unsafe water, air, and food commonplace, it may have been a wise suggestion.


But just as important were the psychological benefits of a long vacation. The Brockville petition makes a cogent case for what we would call a mental health break.


Your Petitioners are well persuaded that there is a strong physiological argument in favor of the change suggested. Children of the age of those admitted into our Common Schools, after close application for a number of months, and after having had their energies excited by the offer of prizes, and by other stimulating influences brought to bear on them; actually need a longer relaxation than the two weeks now afforded them. All writers on the education of children furnish arguments in favor of this view, and your petitioners, from their long experience in teaching, have had ample demonstration of the physical and mental laws affected by the subject. (Petition of Victoria Public School, Brockville, 1860)


The mid- to the late nineteenth century, the time when the summer vacation appears to have become widespread, was also a time that was coming to terms with the psychological necessity of relaxation for a large middle class that dealt with intellectual rather than manual labor. Aron (1999, 47) has detailed the rise of summer vacations among the middle classes in the decades following the Civil War, which originated in part because of both popular and medical warnings about the dangers of overwork.


This concern certainly extended to children. The French author Marcel Pagnol humorously points this out in his memoirs of childhood at the turn of the century. As a preschooler Pagnol accompanied his schoolmaster father to work and by quiet observation learned to read. When his mother found out, she was horrified that the process of precocious literacy might burst the brains of young Pagnol:


At dinner, my father affirmed that these were just ridiculous superstitions: I had not exerted myself in any way, I had learnt to read as a parrot learns to talk, and he had not even been aware of it. My mother was not convinced, and from time to time she would place her cool hand on my brow and ask: “You haven’t got a headache?” No, I had no headache, but until the age of six, I was no longer allowed to enter a classroom or open a book, for fear of a cerebral explosion. (Pagnol 1986, 31)


Although Pagnol looked back on the incident with twentieth century nostalgia, discussions of overlearning were quite serious in the nineteenth century. In 1892, a few years after the Grey County petition, the city of Guelph, west of Toronto, circulated a petition to ensure that children were not required to attend school before the age of six years. What reason was offered? It was the opinion of the petitioners that early admission to school was injurious to the physical health and mental development of these very young students. They believed that many of the mental and bodily illnesses of the late nineteenth century (especially those of a “nervous character” and those of impaired and imperfect vision) were attributable to children being sent to school too soon. The petition noted that large numbers of Canadian and American medical journals warned of injury done to the bodies and brains of children by the overstrain of their brains at too early an age (City of Guelph 1892).


In many respects the clock of work is an overriding one, and we have already referred to the interaction of work and the school calendar, most specifically through the farming community, and the use of compulsory education legislation to address labor concerns. As well, one area requiring more research is the interaction of nineteenth century school holiday with the evolving leisure patterns of the fast-growing urban population. Aron (1999) described how the concept of a vacation from work originated in the mid- to late nineteenth century among most ranks of the middle class. Aron also makes it clear that such vacations were usually limited to a week or two in duration and excluded the vast majority of the working classes until the twentieth century.


Although evidence at this time is limited, it is probable that the evolution of the elementary school summer holidays is connected at least in part to the evolution of the urban work/leisure calendar. As noted earlier, the Brockville petition refers to some middle-class urban children being absent during midsummer because they were visiting “various watering places with their parents.” This is presented as a health reason—that is, avoiding the bad air of the city in summer—but then a primary reason for the rise of vacations was for supposed reasons of health (and it is easier to do something pleasant if it is justified by moral duty). The architects of the public school system in the mid- to late nineteenth century were very conscious that they had to make the system appeal to the middle class as well as the poorer members of society (see, e.g., Houston and Prentice 1988, 227–232). The extension of the school recess during summer would have made the scheduling of these holidays much easier.


There is another area where the clock of work and the school calendar intersected—in the integration of the elementary and secondary school systems. Here the evidence is somewhat stronger. Not least of the reasons for the 1860 doubling of the common school summer vacation was something that would apply to labor issues everywhere: a perceived inequity, since the high schools and universities had longer holidays. At this time, the high schools were rather minor players in the field of public education, since relatively few people attended secondary school (e.g., even in 1900, after the widespread expansion of public education in Ontario, only 22,000 students were attending public high schools, as compared with 420,000 public school students; Phillips 1977–78, 164). Still, the high school and university teachers, while small in number compared to common school teachers, had much greater prestige. The granting of a month-long summer holiday to common school teachers can be seen at least in some part as a way of aligning the elementary and secondary calendars. Such a step was necessary for the amalgamation of elementary and secondary boards of education into unified district school boards, which took place concurrently with the development of the two-month summer vacation throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


The influence of the university calendar was probably more indirect. The Brockville Petition looked to "the Collegiate Institutions of the country, in which three months are given as holidays in summer; and to the Grammar Schools, which come under the jurisdiction of Your Honorable Council, in which four weeks are allowed at midsummer. Surely the difference of time granted between those named, and the Common Schools, is indefensible by sound argument.” (Collegiateswas a term often used for private secondary schools as well as for postsecondary institutions.) It is quite probable that the calendar of the universities influenced the calendar of the secondary schools, for reasons of both prestige and practicality. This in turn influenced the dynamics of secondary school and common (elementary) school vacations.


The impact of the calendars of higher education institutions on the public school calendar became intertwined over time. As the length of the calendar and expectations for teacher education increased summer became the opportunity for formal study in normal schools, colleges, and universities. Since the calendars for higher education institutions were more or less equivalent with the September-to-June organization of public schools, summer school was mostly used for professional education courses and for teachers upgrading to baccalaureate degrees. Where higher education summer school was available to others, it resembled what public school summer school has become: opportunities for makeup work and for advancing in one’s program. The implications of K–12 year-round schooling for higher education is complex, offering possibilities and problems in changing the rhythm of calendars to accommodate changes in teachers’ availability for courses, let alone changes in students’ timetables.



It would appear that the modern summer holiday was forged out of the growing industrialization and the urbanization of the modern state. A centralized polity created a school clock that fit with the then-perceived relationships with other clocks of society. Arguably, the most contentious part of the calendar is the long and uninterrupted summer holiday. But which interest group, urban or rural, can claim paternity? Our evidence suggests, as does Gold’s data (2002), that the urban interest makes for a more plausible hypothesis than its rural counterpart. The schools in cities are less conducive to the hot summer months; the need for urban workers to take holidays during fair weather is a consideration since factories and offices of the times were not air conditioned. Although the rhythm of farm work varies with the crop, many crops demand planting in spring and harvesting in the fall. While there may be summer chores associated with growth, they are less likely to require full employment from youth. Livestock farming has a different set of rhythms, in some ways requiring almost year-round attention.


In returning to the question that introduced this paper, “what are the origins of the present-day school calendar,” we would speculate that the choice of nineteenth century rural society as the source for the traditional calendar is an understandable reproduction of a myth. In our contemporary society there is a propensity to hearken back to earlier, less complicated times, and the nineteenth century evokes romantic images of rugged individualism and a misplaced understanding of the rhythms of farm life.


Does an alternative interpretation of the tale of the school calendar help to understand possible areas to consider in rethinking the relationship between the school calendar and contemporary, as well as future, educational arrangements?


Many proponents of calendar change suggest that a contemporary calendar should not be a reflection of a now obsolete agrarian society, one that has little relevance to modern industrial society. Taking the interpretation that the traditional calendar is more reflective of urban interests of seventy-five to one hundred years ago, how do other clocks of society compare today with the societal clocks of the earlier formative period? The previous era of increasing urbanization and industrialization reflected accommodation of new peoples and new life patterns. Far from simple, the complexities of urban life reflected a dynamic stability around the workplace—a fairly clear delineation between workers and employers, representing a high degree of class-consciousness around capitalist ventures. For the most part, some women may have worked in factories, but the preference was for mothers to be home teaching the children. In contrast with the past, today there is more fluidity in type of work, conditions of employment, and expectations for women. If the school is viewed as society’s baby-sitter, there may be much more need for child and youth care today, given the greater proportion of women in the workplace. Also, there is more disposable income available today to avail oneself of leisure pursuits. Additionally, the clock of religion has changed dramatically, from a mostly Christian to a more multireligious society. Although Christianity may still be dominant in numbers, it no longer dominates our lives as in former times. This changes the rhythm of the weekend to enable more possibilities for accommodating busy schedules. As for effects on the school calendar, the larger numbers of students from non-Christian backgrounds, such as Muslim, has implications for holy times such as Ramadan regarding time off from school and the effects of prolonged fasting on learning.


During the earlier period, the school clock was fashioned to accommodate some of the evolving features of a modern society. If that was the case, then perhaps those advocating change to the traditional calendar have to see how the school might accommodate the other clocks of society. We make mention of several of these features of modern life that may be worthy of consideration.


In many instances, today’s working life is vastly different from that of previous eras. Moving from manufacturing and resource bases to service and information technology sectors has meant a greater diversity of both the place of work and conditions of employment. We are in the age of job sharing, electronic technology, and other features that may make the workplace more difficult and certainly make it different from before. Certain sectors have moved to changing the workweek from five to four days, extending the length of the workday, and shortening the workweek while still keeping the same number of hours. This has implications for the lengths of the week, the day, and even the year. Will this allow more working parents to be available at home for one weekday but also require longer daycare hours during the day? What about the increasing numbers of people who work out of their home? Or those who have home offices? Will an altered work schedule enable families to take different vacation periods so that the school calendar could accommodate more varied combinations of instructional days and vacation days? What should be kept in perspective is that there will be great variations in conditions of work, perhaps as much or more than the rural/urban distinctions of old. This translates into potential tensions around lifestyles and has important implications for conflicts in school calendars.


A number of different approaches have been suggested for changing the school calendar to address present-day school issues. In some jurisdictions, schools are overcrowded and changes in the schoolday, week, and year are seen as possible solutions, given scarce resources for capital construction projects. An increasingly greater number of mothers in the workplace is accompanied by a greater need for caring for children both before and after school (see Figures 1 and 2 in Teixera and Bloniarz 2000, 2). The roles of school as daycare provider or babysitter might be enhanced by changing the length of the school day and of the school year, and Teixera and Bloniarz see these changes as potential solutions to the problem of stress on working parents. However, changes in the length of the day through shortening the school week to four days, as some have suggested, runs counter to relieving parental stress.


The electronic age is transforming more than just our work lives: personal computers are becoming commonplace in homes and schools. We have created virtual communities and ways of creating virtual learning sites (Turkle 1995; Nolan and Weiss, 2002). To what extent can we consider that sites for schooling might also include the home or other sites that have Internet capability? If we substitute learning for schooling, we already know the answer since the home in general was, and is, the primary learning environment for children. With the increasing number of wired homes, there are possibilities for flexibility in how we use time out of school. For example, schools close for periods of time to accommodate weather conditions, but that does not mean learning ceases. A recent example occurred in New York City during a snow day when a teacher kept his classroom open through special projects on the Internet (Weiner 2001). The virtual clock has almost no physical structure associated with it, so it can transcend what has become the physical school with its limitations of time, place, and space. Nowadays, degrees from virtual universities and courses in virtual secondary schools are becoming commonplace. At the university level, the Internet is shaping the future course of higher education, whether institutions are prepared or not.22If higher education is radically transformed, what impact will this have on schools? There are many examples of virtual schools being created, and time will tell if this is just a fad or will have significant impact on school organization.


Our leisure time has changed as much as any feature of our life. Rybczynski (1991, 224–225) suggests that our society has changed our free time so that what once was leisure time has become institutionalized—that we structure our recreation in lessons, how-to aids, and other forms of organization. We have created a curriculum of leisure time pursuits. No longer does leisure connote the freedom to do nothing. If our free time has taken on the feel of schooling, how could we imagine ways of integrating the two? Places other than schools are now called learning institutions—libraries, museums, galleries, science centers, zoos, arenas, and the like. These institutions serve education in two ways: as partners with schools in providing articulation with the school curriculum and as educators in their own right with casual and other visitors. Regarding the school calendar, these places have some of their peak visitor periods during school breaks. Perhaps calendar change would provide more opportunities for collaboration. Can the technology of the Internet provide at least some answers to the blending of these two settings?



These are but a few concepts that may lend themselves to rethinking how schooling might be offered and where learning takes place. We recognize that this discussion masks the complexities of the interactions of these, and other, clocks of society.


Perhaps the most prominent contemporary reason for considering calendar changes is the concern with present levels of student achievement. The calls for drastically altering the school day, week, or year are seen as vehicles for students spending more time on learning tasks, with the hope that achievement levels will rise (Wilgoren 2001).


The school calendar serves as a metric for progress through the school ranks. It indicates not only the amount of time spent in school but also whether a student has made sufficient achievement to warrant progression to another grade level. Social promotion occurs when the two indicators become conflated so that time spent in school for a year becomes the criterion for passing on to the next level, the next school year. In recent times, this practice has been questioned as producing graduates who lack sufficient literacy skills. Several school boards, notably New York and Chicago, turned to more rigorous retention policies and the Clinton administration made this a top educational priority (Roderick et al., 2000).


Several factors have helped in the push for higher retention rates: increased emphasis on intellectual skills in kindergarten and the explosion of high-stakes testing practices in states and provinces. However, research suggests that neither social promotion nor retention is an adequate response for ameliorating low achievement scores (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1999.)


Among the ways that schools have tried to cope with this dilemma is to offer a longer school year in the form of summer school for those in jeopardy of retention. This requires more resources during an era when public funds are scarce, and the results in some cases (New York City’s recent initiative a notable example) have been discouraging (Goodnough, 2003).


We have come full circle from the beginnings of calendar formation. One of the underlying problems in this renewed emphasis on summer school has been absenteeism. Additionally, the high hopes for summer school have been predictably dashed by deep budget cuts in most states. Both of these issues, attendance and resources, were at the heart of constructing the school calendar.


The present emphasis on school achievement as determined by testing begs the question of the purposes of schools and how calendars may be important conduits for these purposes. For example, we have previously suggested that some believe that the Japanese educational system, with its longer school week and school year, is to be emulated because of the success of its students on comparative standardized tests of achievement. However, Japan is in the process of revising its school calendar so that students will spend less time in school, especially on weekends. The concern is that “an orderly and unimaginative school system excels at producing pliant, disciplined workers . . . but is failing to produce the problem solvers and innovators needed for the future” (French 2001).


This also raises the issue that calendar change, in whatever form, may be only one part of the equation for creating meaningful change in school learning. The Japanese example suggests that educational philosophy, or sense of purpose, should be the driving force behind any planned change. Is it possible that changes in calendar are more appropriate for certain views on learning and less so for others? Are we contemplating wholesale changes for all types of learners in all kinds of situations, when such changes should be considered for some, not all, settings? An underlying question remains: what educational features are associated with the calendar that might make a difference?


Perhaps this suggests a way of reintroducing the whole issue of how the summer holidays evolved. Perhaps not in the context of student achievement as we understand it today but around the slightly broader dialogue of school and student effectiveness. Much of the debate in the nineteenth century about extending the summer holidays focused on particular types of effectiveness criteria: as examples, improved student health, less delinquency, less truancy, keeping the schools open in the summer so that rural students can get there (from the point of view of the Grey Petition) or keeping the schools closed when no one is attending (from the point of view of the Brockville Petition).


Having a clear sense of how the traditional school calendar came about will not necessarily translate to ways of restructuring this clock of society. What it suggests is that the calendar’s origins in urban life are much closer to contemporary North American society than to rural life. This may enable us to make better connections among the clocks of society that were prominent in the fashioning of the school calendar. Perhaps that understanding will contribute to the discourse of fashioning educational purposes and solutions to contemporary social problems.



1 Gold’s work and our research have represented parallel efforts (unbeknownst to each of us) in reaching the same conclusion about the origins of the school calendar. While our conclusions may have been similar, we took different journeys: we investigated the rural myth and he documented the history of summer school.


2 A recent example can be found in  “Calls for Change in the Scheduling of the School Day” (Wilogren 2001) in which recommendations were made by the mayor of New York City to hold Saturday classes, by the governor of New York State to extend the school day until after dark, and by the governor of California to add thirty more school days to the school year for middle school students not meeting academic expectations.


3 Ontario was called Upper Canada from 1791 to 1842, and Canada West from 1842 to 1867; it became the Province of Ontario after Confederation in 1867.


4 The difference between rural and urban holidays would depend on whether there were four or five Mondays in August. In 1885, where there were five Mondays in August, the difference between the rural and urban boards was two weeks; in 1886, with four Mondays in August, the difference was one week.


5 The 1912 provincial regulation that made the rural holidays similar to urban holidays had a two-year phase-in that ended in 1913. Thus, the last regulatory change was in 1912 but the urban and rural holidays were not comparable for all Ontario boards until 1913.


6 Since the amalgamation of all public boards in the metropolitan Toronto area in 1998, it is now the largest board in Canada and the fifth largest in North America.


7 Although the Toronto Board’s defined holidays of two months slightly exceeded the legislated holiday for urban schools (i.e., from the first Friday in July to the last Monday in August), this does not appear to have been the target of the Toronto Board trustees, since they continued to approve two-month holidays up to 1913. In 1890, for example the approved holiday ran from the Public Examinations of Friday, June 27, until Monday, September 1 (1890, School Management Report No. 8, 8 May 1890, Appendix, 115).


8 However, Wilson’s 1894 letter to Education Minister Ross recommending the further lengthening of the holiday in city schools shows that the idea still had some currency five years after the Toronto trustees curtailed the last attempt to extend the holidays.


9 Board Solicitor W. B. McMurrich then stated that the Board had no power to extend the holidays beyond the provisions of the statute but that they could avail themselves of the discretionary power which the Education Department claimed was vested in them under the Education Act (Toronto Board Minutes, 29 August 1895, 122).


10 Ryerson had been present at previous closing ceremonies as well (e.g., on 27 July 1860), so he was quite knowledgeable of the Toronto summer calendar (Porter Diaries, 27 July 1860).


11 Gold’s discussion of the extension of the summer vacation in Detroit and New York City likewise found little public discussion of the change: the New York City changes of 1869, for example, “seemingly transpired with little debate or fanfare among the board or public” (Gold, 2002, p 64).


12This table is actually a compilation of many different ways that the educational authorities of Ontario and Toronto showed the summer vacation. For Ontario, holidays were decreed first by the Council of Public Instruction for Upper Canada and then through legislation (such as the Act of 1871) and finally through the Department Annual Reports. The times were usually general descriptions (e.g., "the first two weeks of July"); specific dates were given only after 1911, when the rural summer vacation was being phased out. For Toronto, sometimes specific dates were given, in Board resolutions or in annual reports; other times, an annual report would provide the total number of school days each month, through which the duration of the summer holidays could be derived. To make meaningful comparisons, the calendar for each year that a record exists for either or both Ontario and Toronto was constructed (this was done through a useful Web site provided through the University of Omaha, at http://library.unomaha.edu/research/quickref/topics/calendars.htm, which will provide annual calendars in the modern Gregorian manner from the mid-eighteenth century onward).


13 Wilson’s 1894 letter to Education Minister Ross, and the attempt by some Toronto trustees in 1889 to extend the holiday beyond two months, raises the intriguing possibility that the two-month vacation was a moderate compromise between urban factions. However, at this time such an idea remains speculative.


14 Another example is the proposed introduction in the Toronto Board of half-day classes in 1869 to cope with overcrowded schools. According to the School Management Committee minutes, the system that had been praised by the Toronto Board local superintendent, Rev. Porter, was “practised with such marked success in Detroit and other large cities in the U.S.” (Minutes, School Management Committee 1869).


15 While American educational innovations were regularly copied in Ontario, they were also sometimes opposed because of anti-American sentiment. According to Stamp (1982), certain of Dewey's innovations were disguised as British in origin to get around this. A certain amount of resistance by some Toronto Board trustees to changes introduced by James L. Hughes was attributed to Hughes's preference for American trends (Carter 1966). The presumed American origin of the summer holidays may explain the almost covert nature of their implementation by Ontario leaders.


16 Many thanks to Rafael Barreto-Rivera for showing us this work.


17 Since these meetings also set school budgets, these meetings could be rather boisterous affairs. According to Fuller, Board minutes show that farmers at these meetings would argue mostly over the number of months of school the district should have for the year, “and when that was settled they argued over whether to have a longer winter than summer term or the other way around” (Fuller 1982, 52).


18 The 1856 Code makes it clear that the duty of trustees was to keep the schools open as long as possible—that the defining factor was the finances, not the time. It specifically gives an example where parents wanted to open school in the summer, but the trustees of the district did not agree. The state sided with the parents, arguing that it was the duty of trustees "to have a school kept whenever there was a number of children to attend, sufficient to defray the expense; or if a portion of the public money has been assigned to each term. . . .  The duty is as applicable to summer as to winter schools" (State of New York 1856, 5).


19 New York City and County annual reports from the mid 1870s make it clear that there was a substantive summer holiday two decades after the 1856 Code. There was no actual description of how long this was in those reports, but it was long enough that all major repairs and construction to schools was done during that time (see State and City of New York, 1874–1878). Based on this information, we tentatively concluded that the New York City calendar changed from year round schooling to a substantive month holiday between the 1850s and the 1870s. As seen, Gold (2002) illustrates this pattern in greater detail.


20 In Toronto, the dialogue over student absenteeism showed compulsory education legislation and truancy punishment as interrelated. The inability to address truancy and irregular attendance was used as a motivation to legislate compulsory education, and then the inability of compulsory education was used as the justification for harsher penalties against truancy (see Brown 1999, 55–56).


21 The remnants of the tension between urban interests and rural life still exist around the imposition of the summer vacation. In the potato belt of western New Brunswick, Canada the tradition of taking a two-week break from school in late September so that students can harvest potatoes is coming to an end. The shift in tradition is attributed to the growing majority of town folks in the local district whose youth do not participate in this moneymaking venture. The tradition began when educators became concerned that rural students who absented themselves from school during this time often dropped out of school permanently. The pendulum has now swung back for the urban clock as a way of ensuring educational consistency across the province (Dull 1998, 2).


22 The extreme action of reposting all course materials online at no charge has just been announced by M.I.T.




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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 9, 2003, p. 1720-1757
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11216, Date Accessed: 9/24/2021 11:43:45 PM

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About the Author
  • Joel Weiss

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  • Robert Brown
    Toronto District School Board
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    ROBERT S. BROWN has been in the field of applied research for twenty years. Before joining the Toronto Board’s research department in 1991, he worked as a media analyst at TVOntario and as a research consultant in private market research. He is currently a project coordinator in the Research and Information Services Department of the Toronto District School Board and is past president of AERO (the Association of Educational Researchers of Ontario). Publications include "Psychological Needs of Post-war Children in Kosovo: A Preliminary Analysis," with Dr. Ester Cole (School Psychology International, 2002, Vol 23 no. 2), and "The Sociology of Audience Measurement in Canada" with Dr. Ted Withers (in Communications in Canadian Society, 5th edition, 2001).
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