Camp Education

“I desire macaroni pictures! And those little shaker things where you put beans inside of paper plates that are glued together! And let us put patterns of glue on the outside of those paper plates so we can then pour glitter on them so they look nice and sparkly!”

As I drop the kids off at sleep-away summer camp, I’ve been thinking about whether school should be more like camp.  At camp the kids learn an enormous amount, including a large amount of traditional academic content.  Two of my children are at a Jewish camp where they learn Hebrew and Judaics in addition to more typical camp activities.  (And no, there is no giant Moses in the shape of the CPU from Tron demanding macaroni pictures).  My oldest goes to a special needs camp that offers an emphasis on independent living skills (just like school) in addition to the usual camp stuff.

They all learn a lot.  But unlike school, the kids love it.  Don’t get me wrong, they like school quite a bit — but they love camp.  They love it even though they are made to do all sorts of challenging or sometimes unpleasant things that they rarely do at home.  They have to do all of the cleaning, they serve and clear all of the meals, and they fold their own clothes.  It can be broiling during the day and freezing at night.  They help tend farm animals.  They climb to the top of a high tower.  They go for long hikes.

The camps my kids go to have very nice facilities and are considered expensive.  Their camps offer activities not usually found at other summer camps, including go-carts, mountain biking, computers, water trampolines, and tennis.  The ratio of counselors to campers at the Jewish camp is less than 5 to 1, and at the special needs camp is about 2 to 1 (including specialists).

How are these camps able to teach kids a lot, get them to work hard, and get the kids to love it, while schools struggle to do any of these things?

What’s more, even these expensive camps are less expensive than the average public school.  The Jewish camp costs $151.92 per day, which given that they are cared for 24 hours per day, comes out to $6.33 per hour.  The average public school, as of 2006-7, cost $10,725 per pupil for 180 days, which works out to $59.98 per day or $8.51 per hour for the 7 hours they are in school.  Even the special needs camp, which seems quite expensive, costs less than the average special education in public schools.  The hourly cost of the special needs camp is $11.02 compared to $16.17 for special education at the average public school.  I also looked up the tuition of a popular Christian camp in the area.  The charge there is only $3.33 per hour.

How do sleep-away camps get kids to work hard, learn a lot, broaden their experiences and love it — all for less than the cost of public schooling?  A big difference is that most of the counselors are young, college kids.  They don’t get paid very much but tend to be enthusiastic, bright, and energetic.  Some will later be doctors or lawyers, but they are happy to be counselors for a few summers in the meantime.  It’s easier to get talented people for low pay for a short time than for an entire career.  Camps always have some wise old-hands to keep the young staff in check and to maintain the norms and mission of the organization, but camps mostly succeed at low cost because of their energetic young counselors.

Could schools be more like camps?  Could we hire a lot of enthusiastic, bright, and energetic teachers fresh out of college, who know full well that most of them will leave in a few years to become lawyers, doctors, or something else?  A few old-hands would stick around to keep the young staff in check and to maintain the norms and missions of the organization.  But schools could potentially attract more talented people as teachers at lower cost if they followed the camp model.  And perhaps schools with a high-turnover, young staff would better connect with students and convey the love of learning and working hard.

I know that current research finds that teachers tend to be less effective in their first few years and that turnover is harmful.  But those are findings about new teachers and high turnover under the current system that rewards teachers for sticking around for 20-25 years.  We can’t simply extrapolate from that to what would happen under a system that attracted a different crop of new teachers and where turnover was effectively encouraged (reform of the pension system and pay scale could move us in that direction).

Maybe the intensity of camp just couldn’t be sustained for an entire school year.  Maybe adding even a little more academic content would ruin the camp magic.  I’m sure many things would go wrong if we tried to make schools more like camps, but I think it’s worth thinking about what we can learn from camps to make schools more effective.

17 Responses to Camp Education

  1. Greg Forster says:

    “And no, there is no giant Moses in the shape of the CPU from Tron demanding macaroni pictures.”

    . . . or so you think. But you don’t know what goes on when you’re not there, do you?

  2. AwayWeGo! says:

    I wonder what would happen to the quality of the camp experience if they had to adhere to NCLB guidelines and testing. My guess is that it would probably take all of the “fun” out of it…

  3. […] … when compared to public schooling? For the interesting answer to that question, have a look at Jay Greene’s edu blog. […]

  4. […] Greene wonders if school should be more like camp.  At camp, Jay’s kids learn an enormous amount, […]

  5. I don’t believe macaroni art had been invented when I went to summer camp. It was all about the lanyards.

    Most of the learning I did at sleepaway camp involved learning how to function without my family. It wasn’t about whether I learned archery (yes) or tennis (sort of) or waterskiing (no). It matters whether students learn reading, writing and math. Heck, I’ll throw in science and history too.

  6. rory says:

    In my experience camp counselor’s have been more likely to be young college students than graduates, so I am not sure there is an applicable comparison. TFA already has the recruiting college graduates thing wrapped up, and I think they are pretty close to maxing out their capacity and influence. (If TFA takes to many people, they loose their exclusivity recruitment tool).

    Additionally, with the gist of most research showing that TFA’ers sucking in elementary school, being a wash in middle school, and doing pretty good in High School in math and science, I am just not sure what we could learn.

    As a future teacher (as long as the principal doesn’t read my blog 🙂 ), I think comparisons of schools and camps just don’t help that much. As a parent, I agree major reform is needed, but I think aiming for a higher level of professionalism is more of the ticket.

  7. […] the answer to growing disparities in teacher efficacy?  According to Jay P. Greene’s blog post, it might just be to deluge it with youth and fun.  You know, like summer […]

  8. NYC Educator says:

    My kid goes to a day camp and she loves it. I wouldn’t want it to be like school because she’s a kid and she needs to play. But I wouldn’t want her to play all day in school either.

    I think kids need both.

  9. I appreciate all of these comments. It’s a challenge to recruit and retain 3 million high-quality public school teachers under any staffing model. If we choose to go the more professional route, how do we find and afford 3 million highly-trained and compensated professionals? Remember that roughly 1 out of every 100 people in the US is currently working as a public school teacher. My thought (and it is just a thought) is that it might be easier and cheaper to get 3 million high-quality folks if the school system only has them temporarily.

    Rory makes a good point that TFA may have already exhausted this well, but that is under a compensation system that punishes short-termers by denying them any pension benefits and by giving them the lowest pay. I wonder whether we might be able to get many more TFA-types if we let them keep their retirement benefits in a 403b and if we increased the pay for people who are more effective.

    As to Joanne and NYC Educator’s points that camp is mostly about life skills, I agree with them. My point is not so much about the content of camp but the staffing model.

    Lastly, on the concern that testing sucks the energy out of school — the consequences of NCLB testing for individual teachers are about as meaningful as the consequences for camp counselors from losing color wars. This should be the topic of a separate post, but I can’t quite understand how NCLB is so burdensome on teachers when as far as I know not a single teacher has been fired or experienced a pay cut as a result of it.

  10. Ryan Marsh says:

    “I can’t quite understand how NCLB is so burdensome on teachers when as far as I know not a single teacher has been fired or experienced a pay cut as a result of it.”

    Psychological burden? I don’t like NCLB, therefore I’m burdened by its existence and influence on something related to my job?

  11. Nate says:

    Here in CA my mother is a public school teacher, I don’t think it’s exactly the same as the NCLB requirements, but she has to spend hours filling out BTSA standards paperwork and going to meetings about the standard. It sucks the life out of her and makes her very unhappy, then there’s all the work surrounding the CA exit exams…

    As for me, I’m going to be sending my son to a local free school. With the exception of the hiring model, it much more resembles a Summer camp.

  12. […] Greene, a fan of macaroni art, wonders why school can’t be more like summer camp, which his kids find enjoyable and often […]

  13. […] the differences between children from low socioeconomic backgrounds versus children who come from higher ones is in how the way they spend their summers. The differences can have a direct impact on test […]

  14. […] … when compared to public schooling? For the interesting answer to that question, have a look at Jay Greene’s edu blog. […]

  15. markm says:

    How closely are those college kids working as camp counselors supervised? I think the reason camps do well with such a staffing model and schools often fail with much better prepared new hires is that camps have active and competent management – or go out of business – while school administrators often seem to have come to that career field by being too stupid to teach.

    My impression when I was in public schools forty years ago was that the average new teacher had a whole lot of educational theory but only a little experience as a student teacher working with kids under supervision, and then they were thrown into a classroom by themselves to sink or swim. My 6th grade teacher sank, ending her first and only year of teaching so stressed out she needed a stay in a mental institution. And as far as I could tell, the principal did nothing to help her cope, nor to see the kids learned something that year. She did have the bad luck of drawing a class with three hyperactive near-geniuses that often alleviated the boredom of unchallenging subject material by torturing the teacher (I was one of them), but if the school had been as competently managed as, say, a McDonald’s, the management would have understood that it was throwing a newby into a tough job, would have frequently checked up on how she was doing and provided frequent feedback and additional training, and would have pulled her out and put in someone who could handle it if needed.

  16. […] we should become more comfortable with turnover in education.  Maybe schools should be run more like summer camps.  We would rely on a large number of bright, young, and enthusiastic teachers, most of whom would […]

  17. Anon says:

    Is this satire?

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