When you’re a kid, nothing beats the delirious excitement of summer vacation. After the final school bell rings in mid June, or thereabout, millions of American schoolchildren trade the books and stuffy classrooms for lounging around the house and the swimming pool eating popsicles.
All that glorious idleness might lead one to conclude that learning gets tossed in the wastebasket in the summer along with science homework and multiplication tables. In fact, summer is a critical period for skills retention, and as educational sociologists emphasize, a source of significant inequality between high- and low-socioeconomic status children.
How Do We Know Summer Learning Helps to Explain the SES-Achievement Gap?
The widening of learning gains in the summer months between advantaged and disadvantaged children has been documented in several studies over the past few decades starting with Barbara Heyn’s 1978 book Summer Learning and the Effects of Schooling where she observed in a sample of children in Atlanta, Georgia that low-SES children kept up with high-SES children during the school year, but fell behind during the summer.
In a particularly well-designed study, Alexander, Entwisle, and Olson (2007) use panel data from the Baltimore Beginnings School Study, which follows a mixed income urban cohort from kindergarten through to age 22. One particular advantage of the study is that children are interviewed twice in several school years, once in the fall and again in the spring, allowing for better assessment of changes during the school year and changes during the summer. They find:
“That cumulative achievement gains over the first nine years of children’s schooling mainly reflect school-year learning, whereas the high SES–low SES achievement gap at 9th grade mainly traces to differential summer learning over the elementary years. These early out-of-school summer learning differences, in turn, substantially account for achievement-related differences by family SES in high school track placements (college preparatory or not), high school noncompletion, and four-year college attendance.”
Looking at changes in reading scores, they find that half of the difference between low-SES youth and high-SES youth is explained by summer learning gains, and speculate that some of the summer learning gains could contribute to the lower trajectory of those most at risk of drop-out.
What Do Kids Learn During Summer Vacation?
The suggestive evidence is that while high SES children continue to learn during the summer, or at least forget less, low SES children fall behind. What are the mechanisms that transmit this social class advantage? As Alexander and coauthors argue in another paper formal schooling helps to equalize the advantages and disadvantages conferred by family and social environments. Disadvantages children do not only have access to fewer educational resources out of school, they also have access to fewer kinds of enrichment opportunities:
“In the BSS, we find that better-off children more often go to city and state parks, fairs or carnivals, and take day or overnight trips. They also more often take swimming, dance, and music lessons; visit local parks, museums, science centers, and zoos; and make more visits to the library in summer. In addition, children living in better neighborhoods play more organized sports in summer, which can reap dividends in unexpected ways. Sports like soccer, field hockey, and softball obligate children to learn complicated rule systems, encourage children to work together toward shared goals, and may stimulate interest in topics like batting percentages, odds of winning or losing, and so on. These and other like activities support engaged learning outside the traditional classroom setting, and as instances of incidental learning, they can spill over to formal academics.”
Summer thus provides the basis for learning and personal growth, not all of which is measurable on standardized evaluations.
Is it Time to Rethink Summer Vacation?
Education policy researchers have criticized the relatively short American school year as an outdated preindustrial legacy of the agrarian American way of life. The average American school year lasts only 180 days, compared to 192 in England, and more than 240 in Japan. Increasing the school year, or running school year-round, would arguably increase learning and help to further reduce the disadvantages of low-income parents. The arguments for lengthening the school year are solid, even if they are likely to be politically infeasible.
A more tenable alternative, and one that might do more to preserve the freedom of summer for children, would be to increase access to enrichment opportunities for disadvantaged children. Publicly subsidized summer camps that target low-SES children could develop curricula focused on increasing exposure to cultural events, providing social skills building activities, and reinforcing school-year concepts through games and hands-on tutorials. What is needed is not a rapid departure from the carefree summer, but a way of making summer learning more palatable for all children without losing the popsicles.