Summertime schooling


The biggest reason that there’s a huge gap between the education of rich kids and poor kids is the summer. The first summer I lived on the farm, Time magazine published a cover article on the topic which I studied closely.

The second summer, it’s clear to me that kids in our town do not go beyond our town of 2000 people for enrichment. This is remarkable given what the rich kids are doing. The New York TImes just published an article about the breathtaking variety and quality of summer programs that rich kids attend.

The problem with not leaving your home town for the summer is that you never get an outside perspective. You never know where you stand compared to the rest of the world. This doesn’t matter if you never intend to exist in the rest of the world. But I want my kids to be able to choose from a wide range of lives that are not necessarily possible in Wisconsin. Which means I have to expose them to that outside world very early on.

The gap is not so much about achievement at the early satge. It’s about exposure to achievement. And this summer both my boys went to camp in another state. I didn’t realize it, but doing that is equally as subversive as homeschooling my kids. It’s a rejection of my town’s way of doing things.

11 replies
  1. Tanya
    Tanya says:

    I enjoyed chewing on this a bit. I grew up in rural Wisconsin myself (pop. 8K) where our big city entertainment was 30 miles away with a pop. 51K, plus family trips to Madison & Milwaukee to visit other family. The summer enrichment there is generally church camp, boy/girl scout camp, open swim at the local pool, the Boys & Girls Club or YMCA, and a very active city summer rec program (t-ball, baseball, softball). The farmer’s children did none of that, however. They were expected to work the farm and prepare for the county fair.

    I agree with you that it is a rich person’s thing to send kids to summer enrichment programs, especially programs outside the state. But I think it’s also about expectations parents have for their kids, which of course differs by social class. In my hometown, there is one rich family – plenty of comfortable middle class business owner families, but one rich family – old money plus the men are lawyers and judges. Their son, my age, was sent away to private school from an early age on as he was then expected to go on to law school, etc. I believe he now lives in Washington DC or New York. That was the expectation all along.

    The other well-off children (well-off compared to other local families), whose parents were business owners and certainly could afford to send their children to out-of-state enrichment programs, did not do so. It was not the expectation for them to set their sights on achieving rich status, move to New York, become a lawyer, stockbroker, Fortune 500 CEO, or the like.

    I think the difference might have something to do with the word you used – achievement. Rich people’s idea of achievement, I think?, is high accolades and very high incomes – aka rich! Middle class parents (not just in Wisconsin) want their children to have a comfortable, middle class lives. And most middle class parents really do not want their children moving away to New York or elsewhere permanently because they would see them so infrequently and not be around their grandchildren especially. In fact, my experience living in rural Wisconsin is that lower middle class parents have generally tended to prefer their children go to college locally so they could live at home and save money on living expenses while taking classes. It wasn’t about school prestige, but getting that degree as efficiently and cost effectively as possible. Of course, higher middle class parents may be more willingly to pay for that college experience away from home, but it is still sometimes preferably only a few hours away (like Madison!).

    That’s not to say that some kids didn’t leave the state for college when they graduated high school too. That’s also not to say that kids don’t know there are other places out there just because they haven’t visited. When you grow up in a small town, it’s not uncommon for a kid to want to get out as soon as they can, whether that be a few cities away or a different state entirely. College is one ticket to that. They know there is more out there for them if they want it. Some choose it, some don’t.

    I also want to add that I personally don’t believe summer enrichment programs are necessary for high achievement – unless perhaps you plan to go live in New York where that’s what your competition is doing. I know several people my age who spent their summers playing baseball, hanging out with friends, and attending local camps who then went on to be doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and even a judge. They go out into the world to get their education, then some of them come back home to settle down and raise their families next to grandma & grandpa. That’s rural life – family and having a simple life. Achievement isn’t out of reach for rural, middle class children – it’s usually just not the same level of achievement or expectation as the rich.

    And don’t feel bad – there are some people from small communities who label Madison dwellers as “Madison snobs” because they feel defensive that their smaller community isn’t good enough for them. Everything in life is relative.

    If you want to send your children to summer enrichment programs out of state, by all means do so, especially if you do not expect your children to stay close to home in their adult life. I would simply suggest not giving the impression to your neighbors that there’s something wrong with them for not doing the same. They are happy to let their child go off and explore the world after graduation, but in the end they probably hope their child moves back home and gives them grandchildren.

    (Sorry this is so long, but I enjoyed thinking about the contrast.) And, by the way, I never left the state until I was 21, and I now live in Phoenix. So, yeah, some of us do get out.☺

    • Lori
      Lori says:


      great response, tanya.

      re: enrichment, we live in the country outside a tiny rural community but we’re an easy half-hour drive from a university town. we have done a few activities, but they have mostly turned out to be a bust education-wise. for example, my son tried one art class through the park district and another through the university and both were far below his abilities. at this point, “enrichment” activities are not as enriching as what we do at home on our own and we mostly use them for social enrichment — making new friends.

      the kind of unofficial enrichment my sons get up to at home — teaching themselves programming, learning how to build lego robots, making stop-motion films, writing novels, making comic books, etc. etc. — usually gets shared with their friends. they teach their friends about what they’re doing and get them involved.

      staying home and living in a rural location doesn’t mean you lose the outside perspective. we often discuss how the internet has changed that. my teenage son blogs and participates on political websites; my younger son has a youtube channel and blogs. we’ve gone on trips to support their various projects and interests. my rural, largely stay-at-home kids are, i think, more connected to and comfortable in the wider world than the kids who sit in classrooms all day in the university town. they participate in it daily; they’re exposed to it daily; but even more important, they already make contributions to it.

      there is a fuzzy confusion here about rich/poor, urban/rural. i grew up on the poor end of the spectrum AND rural, and i started my first business at 22. believe me when i say i got zero enrichment in school. but i still managed to jump out there and do big things. intelligence and personality are more important than extracurriculars.

  2. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I find this article, and the comments above, fascinating. Summer camp is basically unheard of in the UK, so growing up, nobody I knew ever went to one. Admittedly, it’s a smaller country, but still. I just find it really curious that summer camps are such a big deal, alien as they are to me. But I must say, they sound like a total blast for the kids.

  3. Mel
    Mel says:

    This happens to be a topic I know something about. The biggest reason for the gap is in fact summer, but it’s READING during the summer. Poor kids have much fewer books at home and less access to books outside their home. As a result, they don’t read and all academic achievement is tied to this.

    I grew up in small towns (in high school, the town I lived in was population 100). I went to a YMCA summer camp out of state once and all I learned was that the teen counselors were a lot less interested in us than in each other. :-) I wasn’t on a plane until my senior year of college. After graduating from college, I spent a month in Europe and Russia. Somehow I didn’t fall apart because of my lack of travel experience and somehow my lack of “enrichment” didn’t keep me from getting a Ph.D.

    I have serious concerns about our cultural belief that children need to be prepared for everything early and often. Why do they? There’s already good evidence that we are burning kids out on interests and activities that they might otherwise have enjoyed for a lifetime because we insist that they do them full-time starting in elementary school.

    This is the question I have. If a young adult hasn’t had experience with something previously, can’t he or she LEARN??? I did, didn’t you?

    • Lori
      Lori says:

      you had me with the argument that enrichment isn’t mandatory, but

      “There’s already good evidence that we are burning kids out on interests and activities that they might otherwise have enjoyed for a lifetime because we insist that they do them full-time starting in elementary school.”

      please share this good evidence; i’m very interested. also, do most kids get to delve into their interests and enjoyable activities full-time starting in elementary school? i don’t think so. there was an editorial in the chicago trib several years ago written by a guy who was hired by parents to get their kids into ivy league schools – the kind of kids who take AP classes and go to new trier. he said those kids didn’t know what interested them. they didn’t know what they liked. they didn’t know what their opinions were. they’d been hustled through the system by their parents and teachers and he found them listless.

  4. Lori
    Lori says:

    i’ve been rereading eudora welty’s “one writer’s beginnings” and i had to come back to this post and share the last two lines with you:

    “A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”

  5. Florence Gardner
    Florence Gardner says:

    There are an awful lot of assumptions packed into ideas like achievement and enrichment — about what kids need and what they get in various kinds of circumstances.

    I love the Eudora Welty quote Lori posted because it reminds us how little general trends (including stereotyped attributes given to various generations) tell us much about individuals or how to make good choices for our individual lives (or our children’s).

    What do we mean by achievement? Measured by what indicators? What is the relationship between achievement and happiness or mental health or “adjustment” or creativity or contribution to society or the capacity to love and be loved?

    The idea that rural kids need really quickly to be exposed to a list of non-rural things seems a real underestimation of the capacity of kids, of their amazing brains, and of the hugeness of life wherever we are. What’s the rest of the sentence? “I need my kids to be exposed to X, Y, Z or they will turn out to be….?” What are the anxieties (or assumptions) that this is based on?

    What homeschooling or “enrichment” or “summer learning” looks like is very different from family to family. “Enrichment” programs or programs for “gifted” kids can be quite suffocating of independent thinking or developing in a child the capacity to become their own whole person (Carl Rogers’ On Becoming a Person does one of the best jobs I know of describing what this might mean and how it happens — also his book Freedom to Learn).

    I think we need to spend some time thoughtfully unpacking words like achievement and enrichment. Meredith Collins’ blog — she is my favorite educator blogger and consults for schooled and homeschooled kids both — is very smart on some of these questions:

    I don’t think there’s a simple answer to what makes the difference for rich kids. What do we mean by difference? Grades? Income later? To say it’s summer programs, is to lend credence to a whole set of assumptions about what kids need to achieve. It’s a kind of circular reasoning. Rich families are good at reproducing themselves — is this a good thing? Is it what you want for your kids?

    Certainly having money, the caring attention of individuals of various ages, and opportunity to pursue a variety of interests is potentially helpful for brain (and emotional) development in all kinds of ways. But rich families only have the first ingredient here and are f*cked up in all kinds of ways, some of them different than how poor families are f*cked up, but not always.

    I would say more important than “summer enrichment” or a specific set of “worldly” exposures, for kids to grow into healthy adults is: being surrounded by people who are genuine with them; being treated with unconditional positive regard; and being understood in an empathetic, non-judgmental way. The specific activities a kid may be engaged in while in such an environment are less important than the environment itself.

    I homeschool my seven year-old son. I read a lot about schooling and learning. What interests me most is giving my son the freedom and capacity to pursue his own passions, of which he has many, and to solve his own problems — without my needing to hand them to him or stir them up in him or impose my anxieties about outcomes on him (for a future that I can’t begin to imagine). I am a resource person to his learning. His daring does start from within every day.

    If we get too focused on providing the “right” kind of external “daring” (or enrichment or achievement opportunities) we risk suffocating our children’s native capacity to initiate it from inside themselves, which to me is one of the most important outcomes of childhood — an adult whose daring and passion comes from inside themselves (Rogers’ calls this an internal locus of control or evaluation). We barely know how to raise those kinds of kids anymore because we are so caught up with our laundry lists of what we think constitutes achievement and enrichment, externally-defined.

    Best to all of you. Thanks for the conversation.

    • Lori
      Lori says:

      Florence, you and i have the same views. One of us is superfluous here. Maybe we should tag-team. :)

      Agree with everything you wrote, and I would only add this:

      Penelope says she wants to expose her sons to achievement. What kind of achievement do kids find at summer enrichment? There is a lot of competition, and some kids are tagged as being the “winners”, the high achievers — because they met someone else’s goals and objectives. Is that really the kind of achievement we want to expose our kids to? Is that the kind of achievement we want them to emulate?

      I want my kids to achieve their own goals. They can find examples of that kind of achievement everywhere, including in our rural location. There are thinkers and doers here, too, achieving their own dreams.

      As you’ve said, Florence, we need to examine what achievement really means to us and then set about making it possible for our kids. But the thinking comes first.

      • Florence Gardner
        Florence Gardner says:

        Hey Lori, thank you for this. Are you homeschooling your kids? Would you be willing to email with me off list? I’m at: fgardner at igc dot org.

        I’d love to just swap stories a little if you’re up for it. No pressure.

        • Lori
          Lori says:

          just click on my name — i blog about project-based homeschooling and mentoring self-directed learners. looking forward to the conversation!

  6. Sarah Griffith
    Sarah Griffith says:

    My only thought is: why would I want my kids to spend an even longer school year in such a crappy school? It’s probably a good thing it’s only 180 days. Thank you, Penelope. You are my guru!

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