Students everywhere are anticipating, or already experiencing, their summer vacation. It means freedom from daily classes and the opportunity to break, “chill,” and perhaps attend a summer program for many. We know, however, that there is knowledge erosion over the summer, especially for students who don’t continue to read or learn. Race matters here. Lower-income parents often can’t afford summer programs. In other cases, they count on older children to be caretakers for their younger siblings, which means they may have to forego opportunities for continued learning.
There are year-round learning or staggered learning opportunities in a few school districts. However, students are “off” from late May or early June to August or September. Some parents aggressively seek summer programs to keep their children intellectually engaged. Others face significant barriers to keeping their children involved in the learning process.
Parents must be encouraged to find summer learning experiences for their children. More importantly, we need to reconsider this notion of summer without learning. Some schools assign summer reading lists, but to the extent that learning is interactive, reading in a vacuum may not be optimal for enhancing education. It’s better than nothing, but why such a low bar? Why aren’t school districts more forcefully providing summer opportunities?
The achievement gap is real, and it starts before children are enrolled in school and continues through higher education. Upon preschool enrollment, data (sometimes disputed) suggest that young white children are exposed to 30 million more words than young Black students. Other exposure gaps are cultural (who goes to museums, cultural performances, or libraries), physical (involvement in sports), and social. These gaps show up when students take standardized tests or are measured against prevailing cultural “norms.”
Learning has to be both year-round and life-long. This isn’t just about students but also about the adults who guide them. When was the last time you read a book, checked out a museum, or expanded your horizons? You can’t encourage your children to be lifelong learners unless you are one yourself.
Still, it is time for us to think about these summer vacations. The notion of having summer off comes from an agricultural model where young people had the summer off to help their parents harvest crops. With the number of family farms plummeting, children aren’t needed to work in agriculture. From my perspective, they are needed to be in classrooms, libraries, and museums.
Rethinking education means spending money, though, and as our national student body has become more diverse, there seems to be less interest in spending money on education. Higher-income parents can pay for the supplemental education programs that their children need. Lower-income parents scramble for opportunities and have to balance their economic situation with their children’s learning needs.
There are lots of objections to reconsidering summer vacations. Parents with several students worry about coordinating schedules if calendars are changed, and different children are off at different times. Teachers, who savor their summers off, wonder about the financial implications of a more extended school year. And culturally, we are all used to the model of “summer off,” and it will take some adjustment to change that.
Other countries do more with education and achieve better results. Nearly everyone (98 percent) 15-24 years old in Costa Rica can read. That country spends 8 percent of its GDP on education, compared to 6.4 percent in the United States. Worldwide, students spend between 175 and 220 days a year in school, with the United States hovering at the lower end, with about 180 days a year. Our K-12 education is often lacking, especially for students of color. Why aren’t more people speaking up more forcefully about educational access?
The hybrid education introduced by COVID could be a model for summer education. At the very minimum, it provides us with some of the alternatives we need to consider if our nation is educationally competitive. The traditional model isn’t working, and it exacerbates the achievement gap. If we genuinely believe that “children are our future,” we must reconsider the concept of a two or three-month summer vacation and implement year-round learning.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is an economist, author, and Dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at Cal State LA. Juliannemalveaux.com