Despite the sublime weather, the rollicking afternoon I was about to enjoy with my friend, and the fact that, as a teacher, summer vacation is sometimes one of my job’s few saving graces (settle down—I said sometimes), I agreed with everything he said.
The learning loss that occurs when students are out of school from mid-June to September is discomfiting, to put it mildly: according to a 2011 RAND report, average students lose about a month of learning during the break. As any teacher can attest—and this was Yglesias’ main point—this lost ground primarily affects low-income students, who are often behind as it is. Worse, the Slate article cites a Johns Hopkins finding that the effect of learning loss over summer break is cumulative, meaning that kids fall further behind with each passing summer, some to the point where school, when it’s in session, is unable to shrink their achievement gaps.
This is why so many educators end up filling Septembers with review. But in an era of high-stakes testing and, now, new Common Core standards, we simply cannot afford to spend what little time we have teaching concepts that were washed out of students’ brains at the water park.
Yglesias cites a couple reasons that the public largely ignores this issue. Nostalgia is one of them: fond summer memories make us hesitant to slash such an ingrained part of our culture. The summers of some children I know are sprinkled with camps, lessons, and family trips. Many of my honors-level students have told me, in regard to this issue, that summer is crucial for family time as well as engaging in interests that improve their odds of getting into college, like internships or community service.
One couple I know, a pair of busy educators, continues sending their girls to preschool throughout the summer because, as the mother puts it, “They can learn more there than we can ever do for them at home.” Their girls’ skills are improving all summer long as they brush up on letters, numbers, and insect species. They might actually greet September ahead of where they left off.
However, these valuable experiences are not the reality for many students at my school, and certainly not for most students nationally. The cost of camps and summer programs can be astoundingly expensive; they’re out of the question for families without money to spare. And in the absence of those or other structured activities for months on end, kids languish. When fall rolls around and I ask about summer break goings-on, I get several replies of “Nothing” or “I played lots of video games.” This is why Yglesias says that “summer vacation is a disaster for poor children…creating massive avoidable inequities.”
Another prominent reason for maintaining the status quo is (surprise, surprise) money. Yglesias points out that schools would have to buy air conditioners and pay higher utility bills. He also says teachers would have to be paid more; however, if school days were reorganized (rather than the school year lengthened), that would reallocate the break throughout the year, offering it in smaller chunks that would be less likely to lead to brain drain, and teacher salaries could stay put. Many districts have shuffled their traditional calendars and found pleasing results.
But what grabbed my attention most—perhaps because I’ve railed about it so many times—is the hypocrisy that Yglesias highlights. “The contrast,” he writes, “between America’s rhetorical obsession with the bad educational outcomes of poor children and its blasé attitude toward summer vacation is striking.” He points out that we don’t close down any other public services for months at a time, for “[t]o have no Army in February…or the police vacationing en masse in December would be absurd.” Indeed.
I won’t ask education leaders to put their money where their mouth is, because I know they can’t—their yappers will always be bigger than the budget. But the way we’re continually undermining students with this outmoded tradition is unacceptable.
Photo by Dinah Brooks.
Photo by Dinah Brooks.