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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 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.

For many families, summers are far from carefree. During the academic year, school is a place for learning, and more mundanely it's 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 at the top of the list of priorities during the summer for most families.

Summers 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. Reading letters sets the stage for reading words, then books. Learning English in school sets the stage for using it.

Decades ago, education researchers documented that summers melt the snowball effect of learning. When students stop learning for the summer, they start forgetting. This effect is uneven, of course — some families can afford enriching opportunities for their children in the summer, but others can't. Summers are a big contributor to the achievement gap between students from higher-wealth and lower-wealth families.

Summers rarely shrink the achievement gap. But they could.

Summer Summer "learning loss" might be cumulative, as shown by this graphic from But the biggest point of this graph is that gaps start in early childhood. Even if summers don't make it worse, they certainly can be seen as an opportunity for change.

Some researchers, looking to quantify the amount of learning lost, have questioned the scope of academic harm caused. Perhaps the summer is more of a skid than a slide, they suggest. Either way, summers can be seen as a chance to make something different happen. Achievement gaps that are present in early childhood tend to be durable, and summers don't seem to make them better. But adding more instructional days in well-designed summer programs might.

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

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

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

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. In the economic downturn that began in 2008, school districts were given the option of doing away with summer school programs the state had previously funded. Many did so. 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.

In California this all coincided with the development of some innovative new programs under the umbrella of the Summer Matters Campaign. These programs depend on an intentional synergy between the academic focus of traditional, district-led summer schools and “summer camp” programs that emphasize fun, engaging activities. Important aspects of this effort have been to encourage communities to try new approaches and on-going evaluation to see what works to engage kids, prevent summer learning loss, and perhaps even give kids a jump start on the coming school year.

The Myth 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 the Pew Research Center, "the decline of summer jobs is, in fact, a specific instance of the 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, mainly at minimum wage. There is no persuasive evidence to predict whether rising minimum wages will increase or decrease teen employment.

For most students, working 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.

The Ed100 Online Summer Academy

In the Pandemic year of 2020, Ed100 began offering a free summer program for high school student leaders. Speakers have included the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, the student member of the California State Board of Education, Sal Khan (founder of Khan Academy) as well as many prominent researchers and policymakers. In 2021 the program will be held June 21-23. Learn more about it and nominate students to apply!

Of course, summers are not the only time that students might be learning (or not) out of school hours. The next lesson examines what we know about the use of after-school time.

Updated June 2019, April 2021


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Questions & Comments

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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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