Summer break widens achievement gap

Summer break may be welcomed by children but research shows that it contributes greatly to the achievement gap between students of different backgrounds:

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, a professor of education at Duke University, and several co-authors.

This deterioration, furthermore, varies substantially by income and race, and its impact persists even past childhood. Barbara Heyns, a sociologist at New York University who studied Atlanta schoolchildren in the late 1970s, found that although academic gains during the school year were not substantially correlated with income, summer decline was.

Subsequent studies have replicated the finding. Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle and Linda Olson of Johns Hopkins University, for example, found that the summer fade can largely explain why the gap in skills between children on either side of the socioeconomic divide widens as students progress through elementary school. Children from all backgrounds learn at similar rates during the school year, but each summer students of high socioeconomic status continue to learn while those of low socioeconomic status fall behind.

The impact is felt even years later. The learning differences that begin in grade school “substantially account” for differences by socioeconomic status in high-school graduation rates and in four-year college attendance, Alexander and his co-authors report.

This article adds some more information:

Many low-income kids actually make great progress in school from August to June, only to see much of it wiped away by an idle summer, he says. “We need to get over ourselves a little bit over our idyllic view of what summer is and what it’s supposed to be,” he adds.

A 2007 study by Johns Hopkins University researchers found that by the time students enter high school, “summer learning loss” accounts for roughly two-thirds of the nation’s achievement gap in reading between poor and middle-class students.

If the evidence is clear, how long until more districts go to reduced summer breaks or year-round school? Overcoming the culture of summer break could be difficult to do. Also, might we have a situation where wealthier districts continue summer break while less well-off districts try to combat this summer achievement decline?

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