No more pencils, no more books — and the lack of teachers’ dirty looks make students dumber, according to Peter Orszag, writing in Bloomberg News. At the conclusion of the summer vacation, kids return to school on average a month behind where they were when they left school in June. In addition, many also return less healthy as the rate at which children gain weight triples over the summer months.
But school systems and parents can take certain steps to make sure that their kids neither regress nor gain too much weight as they celebrate being free from homework and tests and enjoy their vacation activities. One, which could prove unpopular with the students themselves, is to expand the academic year and shrink the summer break.
The second option is an idea proposed several years ago by Alan Krueger, now the chairman of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, and Molly Fifer, then a graduate student in economics at Princeton University: Offer students in kindergarten through fifth grade who qualify for free meals through the National School Lunch Program the opportunity to participate in a six-week summer enrichment program that would be focused on small-group instruction. Krueger and Fifer estimated that such a program would cost less than $2,000 per student. If the federal government paid half, the cost to U.S. taxpayers would be about $2 billion a year, and the benefits would be worth much more.
The second option could prove particularly advantageous in light of research that shows that the “summer fade” hits minority kids and kids from low-income families particularly hard. Some attribute it to the fact that while few minority or poor children get enrichment opportunities during the summer months — they can often be too much for struggling families to afford — those in the higher income levels continue to learn even when the school is out.
Although efforts to fund such programs at the federal level will almost inevitably hit a legislative road block, there are groups that are taking initiative on the local level to give poorer kids an opportunity to continue learning outside of school.
For example, the National Summer Learning Association, with private funding, recently began a three-year “Smarter Summers” initiative in 10 cities, aimed at providing high-quality summer instruction for 20,000 students.
But even something less ambitious, like a program to provide kids with free or cheap reading material for the summer, could pay huge dividends when students return to school in September. A University of Virginia experiment showed that literacy levels improved in students who had access to books over the summer break.
A voluntary summer reading program need not be expensive. Yet it’s not enough to merely give children books; encouragement from teachers and parents is also crucial. And for some students, even that may not be sufficient; in another study, Kim and Jonathan Guryan, then at the University of Chicago, found that a reading program for low-income, Spanish-speaking Latino children provided no measurable benefit in reading comprehension or vocabulary.