School's Out for Summer—And That's a Problem
How the lack of affordable summer programs hurts students
Summer is upon us. Temperatures are rising, and so are parents’ anxiety levels. The widespread cultural memory of summer as a carefree time with children playing outside, family vacations at the beach, and picnics in the park is not the reality for most American families today. Currently, in 46 percent of two-parent households, both parents work full time—a proportion that has risen significantly over the past few decades. This leaves a large number of our children caring for themselves, parked in front of TV screens or video games, and therefore vulnerable to boredom, summer learning loss, and high-risk behavior. A majority of our families are scrambling to care for their children over the summer.
Our current summer education landscape has been in place since the 1930s. While many believe that summer vacation was important for rural families so that kids could help out on the farm, that is not historically accurate, according to historian Kenneth Gold’s 2002 book School’s In: A History of Summer Education in American Public Schools. During the early 1800s, school was primarily open during the winter and summer so that children could be available to help with spring planting and fall harvesting. In the late 1800s, as America became more industrialized, summer was designated as a time for family vacations and a break for students. Experts at the time worried about the stress and physical damage of too much mental exertion for children in school for long periods of time.
It wasn’t until the 1930s that public summer school evolved into the model of remediation and credit recovery for students struggling academically that we would recognize today. As the number of households without a parent at home to provide care increased, summer camps and other child-care options began to rise. Unfortunately, the summer learning programs have not grown at the same rate.
Today, demand is much higher than supply. According to a 2009 report from the Afterschool Alliance, among those schoolchildren who do not participate in summer learning programs, 56 percent have parents who report that they would like to have such a program for their children. This would require 24 million more seats to meet this demand. Unfortunately, there are not enough accessible options for parents, a problem that is especially pronounced in low-income neighborhoods. We need more affordable summer programs for children and families to prevent summer learning loss. If we want all of our children to be prepared for college and career, summer is a critical learning time.
We know that all children experience some loss of knowledge and skills over the summer. In math, most children lose two months of math skills during summer vacation, according to the National Summer Learning Association. For reading, the losses are even more pronounced for low-income students, who typically lose two to three months of reading skills. Their higher-income peers, by contrast, make slight reading gains, thus widening the achievement gap. These losses are cumulative and have a huge impact: By 5th grade, low-income children have been left 2 1/2 to three years academically behind their higher-income peers by summer learning loss. Not only do these losses hurt individual children, they also hold back entire classes. A majority of teachers are forced to spend at least a month reteaching material students forgot over the summer.
Summer is an especially challenging time for low-income families that receive food assistance. According to the Food Research and Action Center, more than 20 million children received free lunch through the National School Lunch Program every day during the school year. In the summer, it is much harder to serve kids who need food—in 2016, only one out of every seven kids served by the National School Lunch Program during the previous school year was reached by the Summer Nutrition Programs. And kids who aren’t eating properly have both physical and emotional-developmental issues that make it harder on them to learn when school is back in session.
Our world has changed dramatically since the concept of summer vacation came into vogue. We need to ensure that our students have safe and enriching opportunities during the summer to make sure that they are learning and thriving.