Anyone who’s spent at least two years in school knows how quickly the mental cobwebs can pile up over the summer.
In June you’re a test-ready warrior. By September, you might feel like a foggy-headed dunce.
Sociologists refer to this decline as the summer setback, and it’s widely cited as one of the most corrosive factors in the achievement gap between low- and high-income students. While low-income kids play games and watch cartoons in the summer, high-income kids go to camp, visit museums, and continue learning.
Over time, those incremental advantages can spell the difference between who gets placed into elite colleges and high-paying jobs and who drops out.
Some parents and schools have tried to help kids overcome the summer setback with enrichment classes. But others have taken a more radical approach, calling instead for a complete overhaul of the school calendar so that kids attend school year-round. Between 1985 and 2011, the number of US schools with year-round learning increased ninefold, bringing the current total to just shy of 4,000.
According to recent research, however, the trend might be misguided. Year-round school doesn’t help with the effects of inequality or erase the summer setback all kids tend to experience. In the worst cases, it actually hurts kids’ education.
What people get wrong about year-round school
The biggest misconception with year-round school is that kids spend more time in the classroom. Parents hear “no summer break” and immediately think kids are getting an extra three months of school. That’s not necessarily true.
In most cases, kids who attend year-round schools learn for six weeks at a time before taking three-week breaks. Their “summer break” lasts only a month. They still learn for 180 days, just like traditional schools.
Paul von Hippel, an expert on educational inequality at the University of Texas at Austin, argues that kids in schools using either calendar models — whether they’re from low-income, middle-income, or high-income families — end up performing roughly the same on standardized tests.
There’s no added drawback to summer vacation that year-round school protects kids from, he tells Business Insider. A three-week break might be shorter than a three-month break, but compared to how long kids are in school before the break, the setbacks add up equally.
“It is a bit like the race between tortoise and hare,” von Hippel wrote in a recent review of the research on year-round school, “except that, in this case, the race ends in a tie.”
Still, people like to blame summer vacation because they see kids spending a huge chunk of time away from a classroom and think that’s doing the most damage. Often, the real culprit is economic in nature.
“The differences you see between upper-middle class families and poor families aren’t differences that go away if you rearrange the school calendar,” von Hippel says. “The summer provides a window into what those differences are like, but those differences exist every weekend. Whenever children are out of school, their environments are less equal.”
Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, agrees that rearranging the time isn’t nearly as important as making smarter use of it.
“It doesn’t get at that issue of making sure that low-income students, when they’re not in school, have lots of opportunities for enrichment,” he tells Business Insider.
Too many kids, too little time
Perceived increases in achievement aren’t the only reason a school district might push to switch. One of the few benefits of a year-round system is that it relieves the burdens of overcrowding.
In Wake County, North Carolina, for example, attendance rose by nearly two-thirds between 1995 and 2007. As a result, 37 of the county’s 177 schools now rely on a “multi-track” model in which students are split into four groups. Each group is staggered so while one group is on break, the others are in session, and the building doesn’t sit empty for three months.
“It really is true that the traditional calendar is somewhat inefficient,” von Hippel says. Multi-track schools might have to pay more during the summer to keep the lights and A/C on, but that’s much cheaper than building a brand-new school.
In any case, the benefit that gets passed on to students is still marginal. The lessons from Wake County don’t translate to schools where overcrowding isn’t an issue. And research shows the switch can frustrate parents who have kids in schools using both schedules. Year-round school can even cause property values to decline if families and teachers relocate to keep their summers.
As von Hippel writes, “Although surveys can be informative, behaviors show teachers and parents voting with their feet. Actions speak louder than words.”
How to solve the right problems
If there’s any hope for year-round school it’s that multiple three-week breaks might give teachers an easier time to teach additional classes than a full summer, when kids have fully checked out. Neither Kahlenberg nor von Hippel could say for sure, however, because there isn’t any research on it.
What the research does suggest is schools should do whatever they can to close the gaps created by poverty. They can hold field trips to museums, aquariums, and national parks during the summer so kids don’t equate enrichment with summer school. And during the year they can focus more on personalized learning, which some schools have used to great success.
If governments want to stop the achievement gap from widening (or close it altogether), they can offer greater access to pre-K. Or, if they want to go by the latest research, they could just give poor families more money, which may raise achievement even more than early education.
Whatever the solution, implying that the three-month period between June and September is what leads some to Harvard and others to hard times ignores a much bigger problem. Schools need level playing fields, not cleverly designed calendars.