Long summer school breaks make inequality worse

Not all summers are equal.
Not all summers are equal.
Image: AP Photo/Oded Balilty
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The romanticized view of summer vacations is of carefree, sun-dappled stretches of relaxation, outdoor exploration, and family togetherness. The reality is a more often a haze of disrupted childcare for working parents and a marked slide in educational achievement for kids that increases as the summer goes on.

It would be one thing if the summer slump was an equal-opportunity chance for kids to veg out and regress. It’s not.

The impact of “summer learning loss” (which, as the Brookings Institution points out, has been observed since 1906) is not shared equally. In the US, children from low-income families fall father behind in reading during the summer than peers from wealthier families with more access to books, museum trips, and science camps.

The lag isn’t limited to school systems in wealthy countries. School calendars vary around the world and within nations, but most systems have a break of at least six to 12 weeks in the summer months. According to the Economist, one study found that all the literacy gains children made on a US-funded reading program in Malawi during the school year disappeared over their summer break.

The director of Stanford University’s longevity center has suggested that in an era of longer lives, we should have longer, slower careers with more frequent breaks instead of short, intense careers that end abruptly in long (and costly) retirements. And in an era of lifelong learning, perhaps the school year should be the same. Some US schools have seen improvements in academic achievement by switching to a year-round model, in which the 10- to 12-week summer vacation many schools now have is replaced with shorter, more frequent breaks throughout the year.

Unsurprisingly, the gains have been strongest when schools also offer supplemental learning during breaks—essentially, when the activities that well-off families give their kids as a matter of course during the summer are available to all. Figuring out how to do that on districts’ already-strapped budgets seems like perfect homework for lawmakers’ summer vacation.