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Lesson 4.6

Time to Learn, or Time to Forget?

For kids, there’s a downside to summer. The evidence says…

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Summer has a very different meaning for middle-and upper-income students than it does for low-income students.

I remember my childhood summers as carefree. I spent endless hours at the pool, learning to swim. I devoured books from the library. My parents sometimes enrolled me in summer camps, some of which I liked. I don't remember studying, exactly, but my mother was at home, and she was a sneaky teacher. I suspect I was learning without noticing.

Summer is unequal

For many families, summers are far from carefree. During the academic year, school is a safe place for kids to be five days a week. When school is out, families have to figure out where their kids can go, how to get them there, and how to feed them without the help of the school lunch program. Academic advancement isn't necessarily at the top of the list of priorities during the summer.

Summers probably make achievement gaps worse

Learning is a cumulative process, like a rolling, growing snowball. Under the right conditions, learning sticks and kids grow academically. What they already understand serves as a base for what they learn next. Early learning sets the stage for kindergarten. Knowing letters sets the stage for reading words, then books. Learning English in school sets the stage for using it.

Decades ago, education researchers made the case that summers melt the snowball effect of learning. When students stop learning for the summer, they start forgetting. It makes sense that this summer learning loss effect is uneven, of course — some families can afford enriching opportunities for their children in the summer, but others can't. Summers contribute to the achievement gap between students from higher-wealth and lower-wealth families.

The theory of summer learning loss is tidy and logical, but it's important to acknowledge that the research base for it isn't actually all that strong. Some researchers, looking to quantify the amount of learning lost during summer breaks, have questioned the scope of academic harm caused. Maybe the summer is more of a skid than a slide, they suggest.

Regardless, it's useful to think of summers as a time of opportunity, when something different can happen. Achievement gaps that are present in early childhood tend to be durable, and summers don't generally seem to make them better. But they could. No rule says that summer has to be a time of drift. Summer can also be a time of reinvention and inquiry.

Why is summer a time for vacation?

Many suppose that the long summer break in the school calendar is somehow connected to America's agricultural past. This is probably a myth.

Many suppose the long summer break is somehow connected to America’s agricultural past. This is probably a myth.

The complicated history of summer vacation probably has more to do with the sweltering discomfort of a stuffy classroom than with the needs of the fields.

Should school calendars be year-round?

From time to time, school districts consider shifting to a year-round schedule in which breaks are shorter and more evenly spaced through the school year. These conversations tend to emerge as a cheaper alternative to raising taxes for a school construction bond — using school facilities more evenly throughout the year allows them to be used more efficiently. Few districts have gone for it, but some have studied the idea.

Summer school costs money

There are many summer programs for children, but few are free, and not all are academically focused. School districts have substantial control over how they use funds. Could they use funds to run academically-focused summer programs? Absolutely, and some have done so, for example, as a way of catching up students that have fallen far behind. The state and federal government have sometimes provided funds for after school and summer programs, too. For example, in 2021 California authorized the Expanded Learning Opportunities Program (ELO-P) to help fund after school and summer school programs for K-6 students.

Public funding for after school and summer programs is always at risk. When an economic downturn shrinks the economy, tax receipts wither and leaders hard tradeoffs. For example, in 2008 state many districts cut summer programs in order to sustain core school day services. One dedicated source of funding that remained for summer programs was through state and federal “extended learning” grants. Partly driven by matching grant challenges, some philanthropic and community organizations became interested in helping provide more summer learning opportunities and schools turned to them for help.

For a few years, summer education programs in California received some supportive advocacy under the name Summer Matters. After the group's final report, energy dissipated to push specifically for summer learning.

The legend of the summer job

For some teens, a "summer job" is literally a job, complete with pay. But teen summer jobs are actually much less common than you might think. According to Pew Research Center, "The long-term decline in teens working during the summer is a specific instance of a broader long-term decline in overall youth employment."

All over the world, teen employment has been on a long, steady slide for decades. In America, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that teen employment rates have fallen by nearly half in the last 20 years.


Less than a third of teens are employed in the peak month of July. White teens are employed in the summer at dramatically higher rates than nonwhite teens.


Over half of summer jobs for teens are in food service or retail. Getting a job is hard for teens, who must compete with more experienced workers for minimum wage positions.

For most students, working for pay in the summer isn't an option. Most are too young, and the summer "job" for many older students is to look after their younger siblings while their parents are at work. For students living in poverty, summer can make their conditions worse. Their parents may find it harder to care for them while finding ways to earn money and keep food on the table.

Of course, summer is not the only time when students might be learning outside of school hours. The next lesson examines what we know about the use of after-school time.

This lesson was updated January 2024.


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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 13, 2022 at 8:38 pm
California provides funding to school districts for expanded learning— summer programs
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale January 17, 2019 at 12:51 pm
The long summers tie in to the too few instructional days overall. Cutting down on the huge gap would then cut down on the other gaps!
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale January 17, 2019 at 12:49 pm
So I'm back again with wanting this statement from the start of this chapter ("Summer learning loss is cumulative; students who fall behind in the summer don't catch up.") to be reconciled with the positive statement from an earlier chapter on the definite cumulative effect of early intervention/schooling. Or perhaps a statement here saying that despite the fact that there is no catching up from the summer lag, it still doesn't affect the longitudinal findings about early childhood education being beneficial in the long run.
user avatar
owenbscott December 3, 2018 at 10:06 pm
All four of our kids went through a year-round elementary school, and we very much prefer the calendar. The kids have only a three-week gap between the end of one year and the beginning of the next - little time to forget and slip behind. Elementary schools should all be year-round.
user avatar
Caryn December 4, 2018 at 8:50 am
Hi Owen, thanks for your comment (and not just because I happen to agree!) My kids have been in both systems and I greatly preferred our multi-track experience. Ours went away with the recession and never came back. I felt like it helped integrate formal classroom school with everyday learning with the bonus of mitigating burnout for all involved with the built-in breaks. In my opinion, the benefits far outweigh the costs. Unfortunately, the people who make these decisions tend to disagree or we would all be on year-round schedules. Perhaps we have some advocates of year-round schooling amongst our readers who could share additional thoughts?
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale January 17, 2019 at 12:55 pm
Do all schools in a district follow the same schedule for year-round? That is if you have a HS student and an elementary one, will both be on the same schedule? I have heard that for some families, trying to coordinate multiple school schedules and the working parent/s possible vacation days can be appallingly difficult. I am in favor of schedules which cut down on the long summer gap, but they do have to be workable with real life needs. I'm sure that in a district with year-round, entities like YMCA offer programs for kids of working parents to attend which fit with the district's model of time off. Or I would hope so.
user avatar
Lisette October 3, 2017 at 4:27 pm
I live in a school district where some schools area year-round. Does anyone know how regular school vs year-round is determined? If left to a vote, I vote for year-round all the way!
user avatar
Jeff Camp February 18, 2017 at 12:08 pm
With support from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, 495 students in Oakland were provided a five-week intensive summer reading program. The program featured parent participation and direct instruction. This intervention approximately HALVED the reading gap for participating students (and almost eliminated it entirely for kindergarten.)
user avatar
Carol Kocivar July 12, 2016 at 2:22 pm
Summer Learning: The Next Education Reform?
Check out our Ed100 blog...
user avatar
Carol Kocivar February 3, 2016 at 11:00 am
Find out what states are doing to support summer learning...
This Policy Snapshot highlights three areas of legislation:
* Literacy
* STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)
* Libraries.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 5, 2015 at 11:42 am
Sample LCAP for summer learning
The Partnership for Children and Youth has released a sample LCAP to illustrate ways for districts to fund quality summer learning programs.
user avatar
Tay Fe April 23, 2015 at 2:53 pm
I am starting a summer program with students at my children's school to help them remember and be ready for the next school year.
user avatar
Annie O April 22, 2015 at 6:35 pm
What a great conversation to have with school admin! A summer home program would be great!
user avatar
Stacey W April 6, 2015 at 8:36 pm
When my kids were in elementary school, I used to ask their teachers for suggested reading material. My goal was to find books that would pique their interest and imaginations. Later on, a teacher suggested a "bridge over" workbook that helps keep students' skills up during the summer. My kids would do 1 workbook page a day, which was more than manageable.
user avatar
Veli Waller April 5, 2015 at 8:04 pm
The video with this lesson explains summer learning loss and the achievement gap very well.
user avatar
cnuptac March 22, 2015 at 6:38 pm
I would love for our district to offer fun learning classes over the summer like math hands on. Cooking classes that proper eating because the kids learn to make it so they try it. All art classes drama musice and anything else. Small fee I could understand but to pay 3 hundred for 6 weeks just doesn't work for low income
user avatar
Rob M April 10, 2011 at 7:58 pm
The cumulative effect of summer learning loss for economically disadvantaged students over a 13 year period can be significant, and clearly the state needs to invest more resources to assist economically disadvantaged students. The state needs to streamline its funding system and target more of its resources at students with additional needs. Whether that additional investment should be made during the summer or during the school year is a question without much research to guide education policymakers. The research on the academic impact of summer school is mixed at best. So, this may not be the best use of resources to close achievement gaps even if the summer learning loss is part of the cause of those gaps.
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