Summer Vacation: A Break from School Shouldn't Mean a Break from Learning

For students in DC, and across the country, the warmer weather and longer days of June mean one thing: the countdown to summer break is almost over. While long summer vacations have been a ritual for American students for generations, the months away from school can also lead to significant losses in academic abilities, especially for lower-income students.


From the number of words a young child hears growing up to the amount of time parents dedicate to homework help, research has repeatedly shown the importance of the environment outside of the classroom in shaping students’ academic development.  During the summer months away from the classroom, the effects of these social conditions can be even more pronounced. A number of studies have found that students tend to lose a significant amount of their math and reading skills over a summer vacation, a trend that is commonly referred to as ‘the summer slide’ or ‘summer learning loss.’ In fact, researchers have found that measuring summer learning loss is one of the better ways to study the effects of non-school influences on a child’s academic development.

While summer learning loss can affect students of all backgrounds, it is much more severe for low-income students whose families are often unable to provide the same educational opportunities for their children as their wealthier peers during the summer months. The disparate impact of summer learning loss is especially apparent in literacy; low-income students lose the equivalent of two months of classroom time in reading skills over the summer months, while middle-class students, on average, don’t lose any, and upper-class students actually improve slightly.


Summer learning loss is also most pronounced in the early years of school and is cumulative, with each summer adding to the disparities in academic abilities between students of different socioeconomic groups. This is not surprising, given that the majority of the brain’s development occurs during the first eight years of life. In fact, a John Hopkins study found that summer learning loss during the elementary school years explains about two-thirds of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income ninth graders.      


If summer break is such a critical source of academic achievement gaps, what can be done? Cancelling summer break would certainly be an unpopular suggestion among students. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to prevent summer learning loss that do not involve rethinking the school year calendar (though many researchers and advocates support this idea).


Enrollment in a structured summer learning program is one way to help students stay on track academically; a review of the research shows that regular attendance of high quality summer learning programs can lead to better performance in school. In the District, there are a number of different programs, including the District of Columbia Public Schools’ (DCPS) summer enrichment programs,  the Department of Parks and Recreation’s (DPR) summer camps, and a variety of summer learning programs organized by regional colleges and universities and  other non-profit organizations. While the cost to attend some private summer programs can be high, there are many quality options that are free, including a two-week ‘Open Data’ summer camp for middle and high-school students (right up our alley!).


In order for these programs to be accessible to low-income families, it is important for city officials to adequately fund public summer learning programs so that all interested students can enroll. The city should also consider extending funding to subsidize the enrollment costs for families interested in attending quality non-public summer learning programs.    


City officials should also help parents provide a quality learning environment at home by giving them the tools they need to encourage regular reading. For example, the District of Columbia Public Libraries (DCPL) runs a summer reading program to help students find books that align with their interests and ability level. DCPL also offers free lunches every weekday (and Saturdays at some locations) to children and teens in the District through their summer meals program. However, programs like these are only successful if they are utilized and adequately funded. To that end, it is important for teachers and other educators to reach out to parents, especially at the end of the school year, to talk to them about the importance of summer learning and the resources that are available to them.


We cannot afford to underestimate the gravity of summer learning loss. Making sure that educational experiences are part of a daily summer routine will help children maintain their academic growth from the previous school year and develop new skills that will help them succeed in the future. That’s why funding quality summer learning opportunities and educating parents about their importance is a critical component of any strategy to close the achievement gaps in our city.