In a matter of weeks, 16 million high schools students will be on summer vacation. Many will be looking for work. But this is a difficult time to be a teenager. Of those seeking employment, only one in four is expected to find a job.
Why the especially grim outlook?
The economic recovery has been slow. Federal and state governments have not provided funding for teen jobs as they have in the past. The private sector sees fewer jobs than last year’s status quo. And with national unemployment at 9 percent, teens are competing with out-of-work adults.
The result: Summer employment figures have dipped sharply in the last decade. According to Northwestern University’s Center for Market Studies, 27 percent of teens will have a job during the months of June, July and August. In the summer of 2000, the number was 40 percent. Last summer we reached the lowest teen employment rate since World War II, and the summer of 2011 could be even worse.
“Our students are caught in a troubling situation because of the shortage of summer jobs” warns Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board. “The overwhelming majority can’t earn money for college and they can’t gain work experience. This has to be very discouraging to our young folks, particularly those most in need. It sends the wrong messages about the importance of work.”
If there is a consolation from this bleak scenario it is that we are being forced to reconsider how students spend their summers.
American students annually have fewer school days than students from many other nations. We have 180 days in school. Finland has 190. The Netherlands has 200. South Korea has 220. Japan has 243. This partly explains why our students do not do well on international comparisons of education.
Extending the school year has long been part of conversations about improving education. In the 1980s after the National Commission on Education Excellence’s report, “A Nation at Risk,” 37 states entertained legislation to increase the amount of time their students spent in school. In the late 1990s, 14 states considered bills. But no action was taken. “It would have been a smart thing to do,” Caperton says. “It still is.”
President Obama has said that this generation of students can only remain competitive with their international peers as adults if they start spending more time in school. He has proposed that American school children extend their time in class, either by lengthening the school day, or spending less time on summer vacation. Many educators agree that this is a sound policy.
In a tight-fisted Congress and state legislative bodies, this idea will receive little support even though many legislators have similar thoughts. But others, including representatives of business and industry, see the proposal as sound and needed if we are truly committed to having a competitive edge on the global front.
Think long-term about our nation and its students. All levels of government should find ways to increase summer work opportunities for the young (there is plenty to do and the price is right) and it is time for responsible minds to revisit and act on the crying need for an extended school year, one that will increase critical competitiveness in the U.S.