Summer Learning Loss: The Problem and Some Solutions
By: Harris Cooper (2003)
In the early years of formal schooling in America, school calendars were designed to fit the needs of each particular community (Gold, 2002). Some communities had long summer breaks that released children from school in spring to help with planting and in fall to help with the harvest, while urban schools sometimes operated on 11- or 12-month schedules. By 1900, migration from the farm to the city and an increase in family mobility created a need to standardize the time children spent in school. The present 9-month calendar emerged when 85% of Americans were involved in agriculture and when climate control in school buildings was limited. Today, about 3% of Americans' livelihoods are tied to the agricultural cycle, and air-conditioning makes it possible for schools to provide comfortable learning environments year-round (Association of California School Administrators, 1988). Nevertheless, the 9-month school year remains the standard.
Concerns raised by the long summer vacation
In 1993, the National Education Commission on Time and Learning (NECTL, 1993) urged school districts to develop school calendars that acknowledged differences in student learning and major changes taking place in American society. The report reflected a growing concern about school calendar issues, especially for students at risk for academic failure.
Educators and parents often voice three concerns about the possible negative impact of summer vacation on student learning. One concern is that children learn best when instruction is continuous. The long summer vacation breaks the rhythm of instruction, leads to forgetting, and requires a significant amount of review of material when students return to school in the fall. Also, the long summer break can have a greater negative effect on the learning of children with special educational needs. For example, children who speak a language at home other than English may have their English language skills set back by an extended period without practice, although there currently is little evidence related to this issue. Children with some disabilities may also profit from summer programs. While there is little evidence that a student's IQ is related to the impact of summer break (Cooper & Sweller, 1987), Sargent and Fidler (1987) provided some evidence that children with learning disabilities may need extra summer learning opportunities. Many states mandate extended-year programs for students with learning disabilities because they recognize these children's need for continuous instruction (Katsiyannis, 1991). And finally, tying summer vacation to equity issues, Jamar (1994) noted that "Higher SES students may return to school in the fall with a considerable educational advantage over their less advantaged peers as a result of either additional school-related learning, or lower levels of forgetting, over the summer months" (p. 1).