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The Case Against Summer Vacation

I have been saying this for years.

Once school is out for the summer, the opportunity for children to engage in educational activities of any kind decreases. Studies show that, on average, students lose about a month’s worth of instruction, as measured by standardized test scores. But not everyone is average and, as a 2011 RAND Corp. report finds, summer learning loss disproportionately affects poor students, who already begin school behind their more affluent classmates. Research shows that any high-quality summer program that keeps children engaged — whether that is a traditional camp, summer school or even frequent trips to the museum — can mitigate summer learning loss.

The problem is, not everyone can afford to send their kids to a fancy summer program. That means low-income children (exactly the children that could benefit most from such programs) cannot afford to participate. Meanwhile, in a world in which most children grow up in a household without a full-time caregiver, low-income parents not only struggle to find full-time care but also must divert large a large fraction of their limited salaries to pay for it.

Worst of all, this loss is cumulative, with serious consequences as the achievement gap widens every summer. Karl Alexander, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist, tracked 650 children in the Baltimore public schools, recording their scores on the California Achievement Test in June and again in September, after summer break had ended. Alexander found that the poorest kids “outlearn” their wealthier peers in terms of knowledge gained during the academic year, but during the summer months they fall further behind. In contrast, the wealthier children, aided by a home full of books, organized summer camps and “concerted cultivation”-type parenting, continue to develop their skills.

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