After spending the summer away from the classroom, children return to school one month or more, on average, behind where they were when the previous year ended. Kids also tend to put on weight in the summer two to three times faster than they do during the school year.
To put it unkindly, the average child becomes dumber and fatter during the vacation. And although there’s no need to declare war on summer, there’s plenty we could do to combat the seasonal learning loss and weight gain.
Consider, first, the evidence for the summer fade effect. Taken together, a variety of studies indicate that students’ academic skills atrophy during the summer months by an amount equivalent to what they learn in a third of a school year, according to a review by Harris Cooper…and several co-authors…
The summer increase in children’s body-mass index has also been measured. In one study, Paul T. von Hippel…and his co-authors found that the average monthly gain in BMI for students moving from kindergarten to first grade was two to three times as fast during the summer as during either of the adjoining academic years. And the children most prone to obesity were most likely to put on additional weight during the summer.
Let’s start with the most ambitious option: lengthening the school year. I have written previously about the benefit of extending the hours of the school day. A similar argument applies to extending the academic year: More time at task helps children learn, and it would be worth the extra expense involved…
The second option is an idea proposed several years ago by Alan Krueger…and Molly Fifer…: Offer students in kindergarten through fifth grade who qualify for free meals through the National School Lunch Program the opportunity to participate in a six-week summer enrichment program that would be focused on small-group instruction. Krueger and Fifer estimated that such a program would cost less than $2,000 per student. If the federal government paid half, the cost to U.S. taxpayers would be about $2 billion a year, and the benefits would be worth much more.
The third and least ambitious option is to provide voluntary summer reading programs for students of low socioeconomic status. A randomized experiment conducted by James Kim of Harvard University and Thomas White of the University of Virginia showed that students developed better reading skills when they were provided with books during the summer and encouragement from teachers before the break began…
Peter Orszag ends his essay with a caveat about not holding your breath waiting for Congress to reauthorize anything useful or progressive. We all know that applies to more than education.
RTFA, though. It’s useful, gets the little gray cells working on how you might at least affect the processes burbling through the bowels of your local school board.
As a sidebar, I heartily endorse the 3rd option. Our family’s standard practice before shipping my kid sister and me off to the wilderness of Dutchess County, NY, to my grandparents’ farm was to divert our usual Saturday trip to the neighborhood Carnegie Library from grazing to a sit-down with one of the librarians to work out a summer reading program. That took into account grade, reading level, a mixture of pleasure and growth reading – and permission to keep books extra long because we would be gone for several weeks.
I loved it. The rest of the time was spent in outdoor pursuits common to life before cable TV and the Internet. My sister and I would return to school tanned, a few pounds lighter, ready to kick ass in class.