WASHINGTON — There are few more cherished nostrums in American life than the importance of equal opportunities. Unfortunately, one of them is the importance of summer vacation. It’s a cheap way of doing something nice for teachers, but summer vacation is a disaster for poor children and their parents, creating massive avoidable inequities in life outcomes and seriously under-educating the population.
The United States claims to take schooling seriously, but the school calendar says otherwise. There’s no other public service that would be allowed to just vanish for months at a time. To have no Army in February, no buses or subways in March, airports closed down for all of October, or the police vacationing en masse in December would be absurd. Schools, it turns out, matter a lot, too, and having them shut down all summer critically undermines them.
The entire issue tends to vanish from public debate, because the educated, affluent people who run the debate don’t particularly suffer from it. Summer vacation costs money, but prosperous parents are happy to spend it on their kids. And of course there’s the sentimentality factor. I’ll always treasure tender thoughts of my beloved Camp Winnebago and would one day love to have the experience of picking up my kid from the very same camp I attended when I was young.
But these days, Camp Winnebago is charging $11,550 for a full eight-week session. No doubt more affordable options are out there, but the basic reality is that parents’ ability to provide enriching summer activities for their children is going to be sharply constrained by income. Working-class single moms in urban neighbourhoods — exactly the kind of parents whose kids tend to have the most problems in school — are put in a nearly impossible situation by summer vacation.
The burden on parents is segmented by income, and the impact on children is as well. A 2011 RAND literature review concluded that the average student "loses" about one month’s worth of schooling during a typical summer vacation, with the impact disproportionately concentrated among low-income students. "While all students lose some ground in mathematics over the summer," RAND concluded, "low-income students lose more ground in reading while their higher-income peers may even gain." Most distressingly, the impact is cumulative. Poor kids tend to start school behind their middle-class peers, and then they fall further behind each and every summer, giving teachers and principals essentially no chance of closing the gap during the school year. Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Steffel Olson of Johns Hopkins University have research from Baltimore indicating that a majority of the achievement gap between high- and low-socioeconomic-status students can be attributed to differences in summer learning loss.
It’s not clear whether Baltimore’s results apply to the national population, but it’s shocking that impacts of this scale exist anywhere. Even worse, for many poor kids, subsidized school lunches on which they depend for sustenance essentially vanish during the summer months, leaving them both under-taught and under-fed.
The contrast between America’s rhetorical obsession with the bad educational outcomes of poor children and its blase attitude toward summer vacation is striking. Conservatives have spent years pounding the point that a lack of money is not the problem in American public education. While it’s true that there’s much more to quality schools than money, the existence of summer vacation is a huge barrier to equal opportunity, and the barrier to year-round schooling is clearly financial. You’d need to install air conditioners, and you’d have to pay utility bills. You’d need to pay teachers and school staff more. But the gains would be obvious. We could save a bunch of money by letting all the criminals out of jail for the summer months or randomly eliminate seventh grade, but that would be ridiculous. The mere fact that summer vacation is a long-standing tradition doesn’t make it any less ridiculous. School is important. It should happen all year ‘round.
Matthew Yglesias, author of The Rent Is Too Damn High, is Slate’s business and economics correspondent.