Reform summer vacation to boost U.S. economic competitiveness

Summer is upon us, and with the warmer days come a hearty dose of American nostalgia. This most cherished of all seasons is still romanticized as a time of lingering twilight, barbeques, and new romance. In fact, our pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstrap culture even accepts summer’s carefree laziness, clinging to the bygone days of our childhood when we would wake up early to meet friends in order to do, well…absolutely nothing. Those times were undoubtedly blissful, which is why my ten-year-old self would be appalled at what I am about to argue—summer vacation is bad for kids and our country’s future economic competitiveness.

The nine month school year is a relic of the days before air conditioning, when spending hours inside a sweltering classroom (or office for that matter) was implausible. While most industries have eliminated the summer furlough with the advent of temperature-controlled buildings, school boards have remained stuck in the past, with serious consequences for our children

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 Corporation 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 a traditional camp, summer school, or even frequent trips to the museum—can mitigate summer learning loss.

Problem is, parents’ ability to enroll their kids in such programs is largely constrained by income. That means low-income children (exactly the children that could benefit most from such programs) cannot afford to participate.

Worst of all, this loss is cumulative, with serious consequences as the achievement gap widens every summer. Karl Alexander, a Johns Hopkins University Sociologist, finds that more than half of the ninth-grade achievement gap between lower and higher income students can be explained by unequal summer learning loss during their elementary school years. The summer learning shortfall also affects whether a child graduates from high school, continues on to college, and boasts workplace-readiness skills. According to Alexander, summer learning loss, “contributes to the perpetuation of family advantage and disadvantage across generations.”

When trying to understand the implications of summer learning loss, we must examine not only the growing achievement gap but also the possible effects of learning loss on our future workforce and the continued status of the United States as a global economic powerhouse. Economists contend that human capital—the level of skills, education, and talents in our potential workforce—is one of the most critical factors in determining economic growth. It is clear that summer vacation is a missed opportunity to benefit each individual child, but also affect our long term economic growth. As we continue to fall far behind other countries in terms of academic proficiency, we must question our attachment to the nine-month school year and whether our failure to provide high-quality summer programing to every child is sustainable in the long term. Our future global competiveness may depend on it.

June 27, 2014


Childcare & Early Education

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