Shriver Report Skips Frustrating Family Issue of the School Year

Times have changed, and current schedules hurt kids and stress two-earner households.

By + More

By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

As promised on Friday, I spoke with Maria Shriver and John Podesta of the Center for American Progress this morning, along with about 30 other bloggers. We were discussing the findings in The Shriver Report: A Women's Nation Changes Everything," which states that for the first time, women make up half of the U.S. workforce and that women are either breadwinners or co-breadwinners in two thirds of American families.

While they paint a very comprehensive picture of the changes taking place in America, the authors call for a "transformation" of the way our major institutions function—government, businesses, media, and faith-based institutions—in order to better accommodate the ways women now work and live.

I asked what readers thought of that, and many of you kindly responded. After sifting through some very thoughtful comments from readers—including a funny one that suggested that perhaps Monday Night Football be moved to a daytime broadcast for all the unemployed men to watch, and Oprah move to prime time so that all the female breadwinners can watch it when they get home from work—I found a question that jumped out at me. (It was from a reader who had put the question out on a Twitter feed to working moms!)

Why are public school calendars and schedules so out of sync with the needs of working parents? Obama said summer vacation of ten weeks is anachronism. You either pay a zillion bucks to put your kid in camp or someone has to stay at home and most often that's the woman.

That's true for almost every family I know. It's hard to find a nanny just for the summer; it's difficult to line up expensive camp after expensive camp for every week of the break; there aren't that many jobs that allow a parent to stay home all summer. As more and more families become two-earner families, the question of what to do with the kids during summer break is a far bigger problem than it was 30 years ago. There are many good reasons for year-round schools; many European and Asian countries are already there. In addition, I think if teachers—many of whom are women—were viewed as year-round professionals, they'd get a lot more respect from society.

When I asked why year-round schools aren't mentioned in the report (except for a small aside on Page 162), Podesta pointed out that the current school calendar was designed at the turn of the previous century, when kids were needed in the fields on the farm in the summer. Life has changed. Now studies show that kids, poor ones especially, lose ground over the summer. Summer enrichment-type camps result in both higher student achievement and less stress for the parents. And while Podesta agreed that juggling summer break and work is stressful, he talked about the need for federal and state support for quality child care, which is in the report. Hmmm. Kind of a guy response, I thought, but OK.

Then Shriver jumped in to talk about her family's experience: "In fact," she said to me, worrying about summer break "is almost more stressful than everything else the entire school year for my family." She feels that government, business, the media, and faith-based organizations are out of step with what women and men are experiencing on the ground. Heavy textbooks in backpacks and a 9-to-3 school schedule haven't kept up, she said, adding, "Changes have taken place, but these institutions didn't get the memo. People are angry about it." I suppose that's why changing the school schedule to accommodate families and benefit students isn't in the report: because it's an idea that hasn't trickled up yet from frustrated families to institutions like school systems. (I also think school textbooks should all be on digital readers, like Kindles, but that's another blog.)

Schools in Chicago are experimenting with a year-round schedule this year. Hopefully the idea will spread, as it did in Europe and Asia years ago. Families like ours would be all for it, and it sounds like Maria Shriver's family might be, too.