This is a process that has been going on for some time. The expansion of the school year, the re-ordering of the calendar into more or less year-round school, the addition of many extra-curricular programs of schools that continue to operate even when the school is officially "off," and finally, the push for assessment by tests and summer remediation programs to raise scores began in the early 1980s. The School Reform movement had both an inside and outside aspect. On the outside, critics of schools argued that schools weren't doing a very good job. The publication of the government report A Nation At Risk (1983), Mortimer Adler's The Paideia Proposal (1982), E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy (1987), and Ravitch & Finn's What Do Our 17-year-olds Know? (1987) are some of the landmarks of the outsiders' bid to reform schools in America. The insiders' response was to say that the solution to the problem of poor schooling was to provide more schooling.
The fact that the insiders won the argument and took over the School Reform banner is pretty mind-boggling when you put it that way. After all, the one statistic that is undeniably true is that increased numbers of days in school correlates with stagnant or decreasing test scores. Of course, we all know that "correlation ≠ causation," but still, the failure of "more of the same" is pretty obvious. So, why do we keep buying the idea that the solution to poor schooling is more schooling? Why not better schooling? Well, there are two primary reasons for the ever-expanding reach of the public schools, and these have been obvious since the mid-80s, even at the height of the School Reform ferment.
First of all, education professionals -- what used to be called "Schoolmen" -- see their work as salvific. They are the priests of a secular enlightenment, and the idea that you can reach a point of satiety with their ministrations is not an idea they can entertain without committing apostasy. Public schools are the secular counterpart of the seven-day-a-week, programmatic Mega-church, equipped with budgets that even a TV preacher would envy and the police power of the State to compel where they cannot convince. Not only is more of what they offer always seen to be a good thing, they sincerely believe that to take a pass on their offer of enlightenment is to condemn oneself or one's children to the outer darkness. In their view, this would not only be an everlasting loss to the individual, but would endanger society as a whole.
This not only explains their desire to expand the number of their programs and the number of days those programs are in operation, but it explains why they are impervious to criticism. As priests of their own brand of enlightenment, they believe it is their duty to bring all children under their tutelage. The control they exercise over the child's life -- and the family's life, thereby -- is utterly necessary in order for every child to receive full advantage from what they do. And not only do they therefore seek to expand the number of programs and the days of their operation, but also the control they exercise, formally and informally, over the lives of the children and their families. To question their right to do so, or even their competence in doing so, is to blaspheme.
My friends who teach in public schools may take offense at this characterization. I would hope they would not. I do not intend to malign them, nor scoff at the value of teaching as a profession. I'm merely pointing out that education ≠ schooling. Schools are one way in which people further their education, but it's not the only way. And too often, the view that the whole school IS the curriculum has been allowed free reign, which ultimately means that learning to ride the school bus, deal with the playground bully, and eat beans on Wednesdays are considered as equally important to learning math, or literature, or history. I'm merely pointing out that school, as an institution, is, like all institutions, prone to consider its own survival and growth as an ultimate value, regardless of what it achieves, and that as an agency of the State, it pursues its blind, octopodean reach with an in-built power few corporations, religious or commercial, can match.
The other reason for the ever-increasing expansion of school, however, has to do with the changing social and economic dynamics of our society. Beginning in the 1970s, many women began entering the full-time workforce. At first, this was about empowerment, about women being able to do things and reach levels that had previously been denied them. But the Law of Supply and Demand, applying as it does to labor as well as to commodities, meant that a vast increase in the number of workers seeking employment would retard the growth in real wages. By the 1980s, therefore, people were already complaining that it now took two full-time incomes to afford what had once been within the reach of a single income. The two-earner household was no longer a bonus, but had become a necessity, for most families.
And for those households with two full-time earners, providing child care was becoming a pressing problem. They could cobble together supervision for a week or two, here or there: short vacations, holidays, that sort of thing. But three whole months without a place to send their children, and to feed them, was a strain on the average family. So families, by and large, welcomed summer school programs, extra-curriculars, "enrichment" of all sorts. And as State governments mandated more days of schooling and schools re-ordered their calendars so that those days were spread more evenly around the year, this took significant pressure off of parents. In this way, one could say that the schools were merely responding to market pressure in taking over a third of the summer.
That said, "something's lost and something's gained," as the old song puts it. And still, that nagging question remains: What good is more schooling if it stays poor schooling? Where is the virtue in the bargain that gives up a whole month of summer vacation in return for more bus rides, more bullies, and more beans? Especially if, in the end, it doesn't mean better teaching and learning of math, of literature, of history? That's a bargain only Esau could love.