Summer break may contribute to the widening achievement gap between students based on income levels, according to some experts. Students from middle and high-income levels have greater access to reading material, regular meals, and summer programming that keeps them engaged. Some states are addressing these issues by opening up school libraries and providing meals for low-income students over the summer months.
If the American Dream depends on its education system, summer break could be holding its students back.
“Summer is the most unequal time in America,” says Matthew Boulay, founder and CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. “We pour enormous amounts of resources in children learning but much of that investment stops in the summer months.”
A growing body of scholarship shows that the weeks students have off school in the summer months hamper student learning across the board, and exacerbates the divide between the haves and have nots in the nation’s schools.
“It’s a uniquely American problem, we have the longest summer break of any developed or industrialized country,” Boulay says. “In this country the inequalities, the income gap and wealth gap are growing and that sort of reinforces the inequalities during the summer.”
Students lose the knowledge equivalent of one month of instruction per year because of summer learning loss, and teachers are forced re-teach the previous year’s curriculum for weeks to compensate, studies show. That lost time, and lost knowledge, adds up, especially for low-income students.
“It’s not so much what happens in a single summer, it’s the cumulative loss that occurs summer after summer after summer,” Boulay says. “The most vulnerable kids tend to experience the most significant [summer learning] loss.”
Well-off students often retain more over the summer months than their poorer peers, creating a gap that widens over time. By ninth grade, accumulated summer reading losses accounted for two-thirds of the reading achievement gap between low-income children and middle-income children, one John Hopkins study found.
One reason for that gap, experts say, is that wealthier families can afford to enroll their children in summer activities that, even if not strictly academic, keep them engaged.
A 2011 survey found that just 7 percent of children from poor families attend summer camp, compared to nearly 40 percent of affluent children.
Camps and other summer activities that reduce summer learning loss, in other words, can be cost-prohibitive for many families. High-income families spend nearly $8,000 per year more on education and enrichment than low-income families, one study found, which accumulates too – resulting in a spending gap of up to $100,000 by the end of high school.
The losses aren’t limited to learning. The free and reduced school lunches that feed millions of students during the school year become less reliable without a school cafeteria to serve it daily. There’s also a child care issue, as children often go unsupervised and are isolated for the months when out of school.
To combat these problems, states and communities have had to get creative in the face of tight state budgets and little federal funding for summer learning initiatives.
In Oregon, one solution is using school resources over the summer months, just not the classrooms.
“There is the child nutrition and summer food aspect which is incredibly necessary for low income kids but you have to have an activity to do that, so what we did was ask the principals to keep the libraries open,” says Beth Unverzagt, director of OregonASK, a nonprofit which piloted the program in 2012. “We also were then able to get libraries in most cases to also become a food site, so it became a very successful partnership between child nutrition and state library systems.”
Because summer food is one of the few federally-funded summer programs, and because most schools have libraries already, the costs are modest, Unverzagt says. Using grants from the National Summer Learning Association and other nonprofits to help cover the costs, the program has expanded in recent years. Its proponents say it’s replicable elsewhere too.
“Every school in the country has a library and 99 percent of them are closed in the summer months, closed precisely at the time kids need books that are already paid for and are just sitting on the shelf,” Boulay says.
Educators in Maryland have tried a similar approach to the issue of summer learning loss. Another nonprofit, Maryland Out of School Time, or MOST, teamed with Baltimore City Schools in 2013 to use the city’s libraries, many recently renovated, as centers for arts and reading programs.
“They had renovated all these libraries across the city – they were this perfect resource – and it seemed a shame to let them lay fallow over the summer,” says Ellie Mitchell, executive director at MOST.
In the years since its inception, students who regularly showed up to the summer program either improved in standardized testing in the fall or regressed less than peers who hadn’t attended any programs. Still, the programs are barely making a dent in the the larger problem of summer learning loss, Mitchell acknowledges.
“There’s still a huge gap in afterschool demand and summer programing demand. We know we’re not anywhere near scale on getting young people access to those programs,” Mitchell says.
The task could get harder before it gets easier. President Donald Trump completely cut funding for a major source of summer and afterschool funding in his two most recent annual budgets, and states have shown no serious commitment to funding summer learning programs either.
“Summer programs get the crumbs that are left over after school year budgets are made,” Boulay says. “At all levels there’s really a lack of commitment from policymakers to summer learning. Even to the philanthropic community that cares about K-12 schooling there’s really a lack of commitment.”
A real commitment would require an entire reimagining of funding priorities, says Mitchell, with Maryland’s MOST program.
“If we want to have students perform better and more equitably we’re going to have to grapple with the whole education funding formula, where we’re not trying to rob Peter to pay Paul,” she says.
Until then summer learning advocates in most states will have to manage with limited resources.
“The thing that’s frustrating for me is the research is in – we know over the summer months high income kids have more opportunities than low income kids and the low socioeconomic status kids aren’t going to camp or the library or fun activities and that opportunity gap makes a difference,” says Unverzagt of OregonASK.
“We often make things more difficult than they need to be. It can be simple and make a difference and I’d rather see us do something than nothing.”