The Case for Slashing Summer Vacation
"Summer's lease hath all too short a date," Shakespeare wrote. Schoolchildren would no doubt agree -- but they're mistaken. In America, summer vacation lasts far too long.
U.S. students spend about 180 days in school per year, with the vast majority receiving 10 to 12 weeks off in the summer. Regardless of their socioeconomic background, they'll forget two months' worth of math instruction from the previous year by the time they return to classes in September. Poorer students -- who can't afford summer enrichment classes and are less likely to have a parent at home during the day -- also see their reading skills atrophy.
Those losses grow over time. A two-decade-long study of public-school students in Baltimore found that half of the achievement gap between high-income and disadvantaged ninth graders could be attributed to so-called "summer learning loss" during elementary school. Those lower-achieving students subsequently had higher high-school dropout rates, were less likely to go to college and had lower lifetime earnings.
Contrary to popular belief, students in the U.S. spend as much time in the classroom, on an annual basis, as their peers in the rest of the world do. Yet compared with students in other industrialized countries, Americans consistently perform below average on international assessments in math, science and reading -- which suggests that summer learning loss could be partly to blame. Schools in the U.K., Germany and France take off between six to eight weeks during the summer. In Singapore, the longest break lasts six weeks, from November to January.
U.S. schools should strive for something in between. About 3,000 schools -- some 3 percent of all public schools in the U.S. -- have ditched the extended summer hiatus in favor of "year-round" calendars, which more closely resemble international school systems. Schools are typically in session for 45 to 60 days, followed by two-week breaks, during which teachers provide voluntary tutoring and enrichment sessions. Summer vacation lasts four to six weeks.
There are some drawbacks to year-round school: It can wreak havoc with family vacation plans, complicate child-care arrangements, and reduce professional development opportunities for teachers. (It could also disrupt the $18 billion summer camp industry.) For those reasons, school districts should focus less on radical changes to the school calendar than on making academic instruction available to students earlier in the summer, to limit the impact of learning loss. And state and federal policy makers should provide incentives to poorer school districts to expand summer enrichment programs that improve students' retention of material taught during the school year.
Schoolchildren, like surfers, may long for an endless summer. Life doesn't work that way. Better they find out sooner rather than later.
--Editors: Romesh Ratnesar, Michael Newman
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