What We're Learning

Where's the War on Summer Learning Loss?

Every summer, a typical American child spends 10 weeks or so out of school. Many of us look back at childhood summers as the best times in our lives.  Classrooms and homework give way to exploring the outdoors, swimming, playing sports, and going to camp. It can be fantastic.

But summer is also the source of more than half of the achievement gap between children from wealthier and poorer families.  You read that correctly.  At summer’s end, low income students return to school displaying a startling erosion of skills in math and reading.  It takes them months of school to catch up to where they were when they left for summer break. The loss is most alarming in reading, where low income students typically lose about two months’ worth of learning.  Their wealthier peers don’t lose those two months; they actually tend to gain slightly.

What’s going on?  When you get down to it, there are two big reasons behind this pattern.

First, the summer is basically a 10-week absence from school—which is particularly damaging for low-income students.

Not every school is wonderful by any stretch, but being in school beats not being there by a mile. We know this because there are significant academic costs to school year absences—and the summer break amounts to a gaping canyon of an absence. During this time away from school, students frequently lose exposure to daily reading and writing.  They get out of academic shape.

Second, summer activities are ridiculously expensive.

A prolonged absence from school isn’t as bad if kids are engaged in high-quality activities while they’re out. But those sorts of activities are not exactly cheap or easy to find, and parents are mostly on their own to piece it all together in the summer. One recent analysis found that the typical family spends $600 per child on summer options.  Affluent families spend nearly twice as much as the typical family: $1,100 per child.  Those investments pay off. But how is a single mother, for example, going to afford $600-1,000 for each of her three children each summer? 

If you want a sense of what summer planning is like for a working family, read this excellent Slate.com piece from a few years ago.  Hourly workers don’t know whether they’ll get enough work over the summer to afford the programs they want for their kids.  They piece together child care on a shoestring.  The programs they can afford aren’t always good or safe.  In an affluent household, child care may not be an issue because one parent can stay home or the family can hire a nanny with a car.  Camps are selected months in advance, and those camps are well run and well rounded.  It’s a different summer altogether.

As the school year winds down, these challenges are becoming acute for the families we’re supporting through EdNavigator. There aren’t enough good programs.  The good programs aren’t always affordable.  Or they’re already full.  Or they only run for three hours a day, and how is a single parent going to pick up her children at camp, get them to another affordable child care option, and get back to work? 

Answer: She probably won’t.  Many kids spend the day filling their own time, supervised by willing relatives or older siblings and loosely engaged.  They may come back to school not having read a page since they left.  They’ll have lost about two months of skill.  This pattern will repeat every year. It’s two steps forward, one step back, and it’s happening to kids who generally start off a few steps behind.

Summer learning loss is a major driver of academic inequality. It ought to be a four-alarm fire.  But what’s the answer?  I’m not saying we should eliminate summer vacation altogether.  It is too deeply entrenched.  Year-round school would require changing the basic employment proposition for millions of teachers.  Many schools would need to be newly air conditioned.  Family vacations and reunions would be interrupted. Ice cream trucks would go idle. It would be a big deal.

Plus, do we really want students inside a classroom twelve months a year?  Let the kids be kids.  They need time to stretch their legs and be outside.

Here’s one idea: Let’s stop leaving the bill for summer learning with families who simply can’t afford it. Instead, we should make sure every family has access to 12 months of high quality programming each year, even if only 10 months take place in a school building.  Summer activities are part of the educational process.  Why not provide summer program scholarships to families that already receive free and reduced lunch?  The scholarships would cover the cost of a summer option that extends roughly the same number of hours as the school day, plus breakfast and lunch.  Let the families choose where they send their kids.    

What other solutions should cities like New Orleans consider? It has some quality options, but they tend to be small in scale. We need to think bigger, and good ideas are out there. Chicago, for example, has steadily grown its summer learning and summer jobs programs over the last few years, through public-private initiatives like One Summer Chicago and Chicago City of Learning. In New York, Harlem RBI organizes full-time summer activities for elementary school students in East Harlem and the South Bronx. If you know a city or school system that’s tackling this challenge, share it with us on Twitter or our Facebook page.