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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The rituals and rhythms of summer are seductive. Long, light-filled days. Afternoons in the neighborhood swimming pool. Fresh tomatoes plucked off the vine. Mosquitoes and humidity.

OK, those last two are not among the delights of summer, but they come with the territory in my part of the United States. And even the mosquitoes help me remember what summers meant to me as a child: freedom to roam on my bike, to pick berries, to play sandlot softball with friends.

The leisurely summer is deeply embedded in communal memory, an artifact of the relatively affluent Western lifestyle. It occupies so central a place in American popular culture that it would be difficult to abolish. But it’s time to do so. The long summer vacation from school has outlived its usefulness.

The way we live now demands a better-educated workforce, young men and women for whom obtaining post-secondary education is automatic — as customary for the average student as getting a high school diploma is now. In this modern age, kids need to spend more hours in school to read well, to write clear and concise sentences, to comprehend basic algebra and geometry.

While the chattering classes have spent years denouncing public schools for their alleged failures, schools are, in general, doing a better job of educating the young than they were 50 years ago. The problem is that they haven’t improved enough to keep pace with the demands for more and more skills. The school calendar — still fixed, for the most part, at 180 days a year and 6 1/2 hours a day — is part of the problem.

(Many school districts have experimented with so-called year-round school, with shorter summers but more vacation days year-round. Most of those schools still give their students about 180 days a year.)

The design of the school year is left over from a bygone era, when children were expected to help with the tasks of maintaining home, hearth and farm. Summer is a time for harvesting the spring yield and planting the fall crops, and children used to help with the plowing, the planting and the picking.