Long summer break leaves kids behind

2014-08-09T00:00:00Z Long summer break leaves kids behindMcClatchy Newspapers The Billings Gazette
August 09, 2014 12:00 am  • 

There's a reason that schools shut down for 10 weeks every summer. But it's not a good one.

The reason is because that's the way it's always been done, or at least that's the way it's been done since the early 20th century.

If nothing else had changed since 1910, continuity of the school calendar would make sense. But there is very little that hasn't changed, and we are hurting children and families and wasting tax dollars every year, when we shut down schools for the summer.

Learning should be a year-round endeavor and schools should be part of students' lives even during the summer. It's time to have a serious conversation about a 21st century school schedule that matches 21st century lives.

In September most students will go back to school having lost two months of grade-level proficiency in math computation skills. It can take until early November before the class is where it was during the previous June.

Additionally, low-income students can expect to lose two months of grade level reading achievement, while their middle class peers will stay where they were or make modest gains. Over the years, this discrepancy grows wider, and the lengthy summer vacation becomes another way to enforce class differences.

Most parents work, so unless they can afford expensive day care or camp tuition, they have to leave their kids up to their own devices. Some kids will take the opportunity for constructive, healthy activities, but many will not. Many kids get bored. It's not a coincidence that childhood obesity increases during the summer months when you would expect there to be more opportunities for exercise.

The problems caused by a long summer break are not news to the educators -- they even have a name for it "the summer slide." Many are already doing things about it.

Portland has an ambitious summer learning program, using the federally funded summer lunch program to draw children to libraries, parks and activities. The program has set the goal of reaching 750 kids this summer, which would be an achievement, but is still only about a tenth of the school district's children.

The arguments against changing the school calendar are not compelling.

Some students use the summer break to work and make money. Some students use the time to go to camps, participate in sports leagues or have other broadening experiences. Families are used to having July and August to schedule vacations, and it would disrupt their plans, especially if siblings are in schools with very different schedules.

None of those objections stack up against the long-term costs of wasted months in school and increasing opportunity gap between rich and poor. Neither is the cost of staffing schools during at least part of the summer.

What can be done? Some states have experimented with a system in which a 180-day school year is divided into 45-day sessions followed by 15-day breaks, retaining a 30-day summer vacation. That kind of system would not add much cost to the typical Maine school year, but minimizes the amount of time students have to lose ground.

A better solution would be adding to the length of the school year with a summer session that would not only stop kids from backsliding but create opportunities for them to advance faster and farther.

Motivated students could graduate early and take college level work. Kids who have fallen behind would have time to catch up.

A century ago, school was not mandatory, mothers worked in the home and there were plenty of jobs in factories, farms, fishing and the woods for people without much education. Those days are long gone.

Summer in Maine is a treasure, but so is the opportunity to get an education. When evaluating the best way to deliver one, we ought to be reconsidering the 10-week summer vacation, a holdout from a bygone era.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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