Summer learning loss: Long-term ramifications over short-term [economic] gains

On its website, the National Summer Learning Association writes, “For the more than 25 million low-income public school students in America, summer is often anything but a vacation. Instead of a relaxing break to explore new interests and places, it’s often a time when children, youth and families struggle to find and afford food to eat and a safe place to be.

circledata Summer learning loss, the phenomenon where young people lose academic skills over the summer, is one of the most significant causes of the achievement gap between lower and higher income youth and one of the strongest contributors to the high school dropout rate. For many young people, the summer “opportunity gap” contributes to gaps in achievement, employment and college and career success.


Every summer, low-income youth lose two to three months in reading while their higher-income peers make slight gains. Most youth lose about two months of math skills in the summer. These reading and math losses add up. By fifth grade, summer learning loss can leave low-income students 2 1/2 to 3 years behind their peers. Research shows that while gaps in student achievement remain relatively constant during the school year, the gaps widen significantly during the summer.”

“Ensuring that books are available to any child at any time of the year will be a good first step in enhancing the reading achievement of low-income students and an absolutely necessary step in closing the reading achievement gap,” writes Anne McGill Franzen and Richard Allington, the foremost experts on summer learning loss.

*Graphic borrowed from the publication, More Than a Hunch: Kids Lose Learning Skills over the Summer Months

In a detailed account of the realities of summer learning loss that emphasizes the need for access to books, McGill Franzen and Richard Allington sound the alarm writing, “summer reading loss accounts for at least 80 percent of the reading achievement gap by 9th grade. Yet almost no federal or state programs or school district initiatives target summers as key to closing the achievement gap loss. As we all know, the gap in reading achievement between economically disadvantaged students and other students in American schools is substantial and to our dismay, stubbornly persistent. According to the NAEP data for high school seniors, that gap is roughly four years in reading achievement, with poor twelfth graders scoring almost identically to more advantaged eighth graders. One immediate response to the reading achievement gap is access to books. “We should make it a national priority that all children from all backgrounds have easy access year-round—at home and at school—to all the books they want to read.”

The Washington Post cited further research in an article titled, “Why we should let kids choose their own summer reading books,” noting “a Scholastic Corp. study of 1,000 readers found that middle and high school students who are given the opportunity to choose the books they read are more likely to read more frequently for fun.“ In an intriguing case study, and one I’m considering replicating, the article mentioned above, “Why we should let kids choose their own summer reading books, describes a local summer reading research project.

“Stemming the summer slide isn’t impossible. Students who read just four to six books over the summer maintain their skills (they need to turn more pages to actually become better readers.)

Schools have tried to enforce this with a summer reading list. Students are assigned several books that they must write a report about or take a test on once they return in the fall. These programs often include a mailed package of books selected by well-intentioned educators, who evaluate the material on educational and literary merits and then ship books home sight-unseen by students.

In 2013, Dr. Erin Teresa Kelly, resident at the Internal Medicine-Pediatrics program at the University of Rochester Medical Center, wondered “if there was a way to make programming more effective and subsequently tested a small tweak in two low-income classrooms in Rochester, N.Y. Although 84 percent of students in the Rochester City School District qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch program, this school had a particularly high concentration of poverty, with 96 percent of students eligible for the program. For one class, researchers and teachers let the kids choose the books they read over the summer. They ran a book fair and each student picked 13 books to take home at the end of the school year. The fair featured a broad range of selections — fiction and nonfiction, classics and newer works — and students eagerly passed the books back and forth, reveling in the opportunity to pick those matching their personal interests while chattering with one another about familiar stories. Many also chose works considerably above or below their reading levels so they could share with siblings. The other class of students received books by mail from the already-in-place community program. Both classes were given literacy tests before summer vacation and again when they returned in the fall. Sure enough, the students who chose their own books did better, improving from the previous summer. Those in the community program showed no improvement.

Summarizing the same article, Pam Allyn, a literacy advocate, told The Washington Post, “You become a lifelong reader when you’re able to make choices about the books you read, and when you love the books you read.” “If we stop telling kids what to read, they might start reading again.”

Jim Trelease, author and staunch advocate of reading aloud to children as a way to instill in them the love of literature, said, “If we wish to close the gap between the rich and poor in this nation and we know where the gap grows and widens, then it is criminal to ignore it.

Sadly, like so many of the motivating factors in our nation, economics drives decision-making. Short-sighted economics sacrifices long-term economic gain. When formal schooling was first established, the school calendar fit the needs of a particular community. When families became more mobile, the school calendar was standardized. The current 9-month calendar that most schools operate on was established when 85% of Americans (and children) were involved in agriculture, and before climate control existed in school buildings. Today, only about 3% of Americans are engaged in agriculture.


In December 2000, in An Economic Analysis of Changing the School Start Date in Texas (formerly posted, but no longer available at, yet which I have after taking a screenshot of the document when I uncovered it years ago), the Office of the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts cited “clear economic disadvantages imposed on tourist-destination areas of the state related to the early school start date” and the “annual shriveling of visitor spending in these places.” Citing the report, Texas Department of Economic Development: The Effects of Alternative Academic Calendars on the Texas Travel Industry (also conveniently missing from Internet archives, but fully captured by the State of Maryland in the report, Task Force to Study a Post-Labor Day Start Date for Maryland Public Schools, the comptroller’s office justified, “Although these are not statewide economic impacts, in tourist destinations the shocks are real. Teenage employment declines, hotel rooms go unfilled, and other businesses experiences similar slumps. Electricity costs climb for all school district, whether in tourist destinations or not,” but continued writing, “the most noticeable results of changes in the school calendar have been the negative effects on the state’s summer seasonal industries such as travel, tourism, amusements, and summer camps. Travel industry representatives widely share a belief that a uniform school start date in September would improve the tourism sector of the state’s economy.”

With the help of the Texas Department of Economic Development (TDED) and a private economic consultant hired to “better understand the economic issues surrounding school calendars,” this group of individuals (absent of educators) sought input from Texas tourism industry stalwarts Schlitterbahn Waterparks; the Texas Hotel & Motel Association; Six Flags, Texas State Parks; and even Sea & Ski, maker of skin care products such as sunscreen who reported a “shortened summer shelf space season at major retailers in Texas.” Based on the dialogue, the comptroller concluded estimating tourist destinations stood to lose $332 million in visitor spending each year. (In a recent article published by the Dallas Morning News, the figure is now estimated to be $790 million annually.)

A quick keyword search provides not one word about learning. The mention of children is reduced to their inability to visit the tourist destinations.

“Amusement parks and water parks are an excellent example of how school start dates are squeezing the peak summer period. First, significant school closures do not occur until the middle of May, meaning that school children and their families will not be able to visit parks until that time. It also means that a large proportion of the potential employees of these establishments – high school and college age summer employees [“cheaper labor equals greater profits,” emphasis mine] – will not be available for training until the middle of May. Thus, these businesses find it difficult to fully open until early June thus “pinching the tourist season a little more.”

The only other mention of children is in regards to childcare. Nary a word on summer learning loss. Considering most children experiencing summer learning loss are those from low-socioeconomic backgrounds and/or abject poverty, those who would not have a hope for visiting such destinations, are cast away. These students of none of their concerns. Consider the following statistics shared by Dr. Ruby Payne.

A female with no GED or high school diploma has her first child in her teens and on average has 2.5 children. In 90 years, that is five generations (18 x 5 = 90) with a total of 48.6 children. On the other hand, an educated woman with a BA or BS degree has her first child at 30.1 years of age and has 1.1 children. In those same 90 years, that equates to 3 generations with a total of 3.3 children. According to Payne, if this multiplier effect holds true, the 3.3 must carry the economic burden of the 48.6.

Until legislators are held accountable for reducing the rates of poverty in our nation, the impending economic crisis will continue to loom. According to the latest 2014-15 Texas Academic Performance Report, of the 5,215,282 children enrolled in Texas public schools, 58.8% live in poverty (3,068,820 children), one of the highest rates in the union. Perhaps we the people should demand our lawmakers to be held to the same standards as they hold our teachers. Rather than punishing children, teachers, and administrators by shuttering schools based on an arbitrary standardized test score on a few days of an inappropriate, antiquated, school calendar year, perhaps we the people should demand the reelection of incumbents on a similar methodology. For example, if poverty in the representative’s districts are not reduced significantly, the rep’s candidacy is no longer an option. “But that’s not fair!” those representing congressional districts with debilitating poverty would shout. “That’s not in my locus of control.”  And our would teachers nod.

Yet we continue to ignore the long-term ramifications for short-term gain. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Apparently, “natural aristocracy” and elitism continues. The so-called 1% sit on high counting profit-margins, while underpaid teachers try to reverse the unintended (or more likely, intended) consequences of the separation of classes. Despite this notion, educational rhetoric will likely continue to be touted by political leaders, but until they withstand the pressures of big business interests, this trend will likely continue (with teachers taking the brunt of the blame). In a bold step, the Texas legislature passed House Bill 1842 in 2015 enabling for “innovation district” allowing traditional school districts to create innovation plans and claim exemptions from various statutes in the Texas Education Code that they feel would otherwise impede their planned innovations. Scouring the various innovation plans posted to the web, several school districts are using the innovation district law to exempt themselves from the mandatory uniform school start date law. Unsurprisingly, during a recent hearing in Austin on “innovation districts” in April 2016, a number of representatives of the tourism industry testified that travel and tourism interests could lose hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs if a significant number of districts move back their school start dates. The industry is already trying to roll back the power of school districts to exempt themselves from the traditional school calendar through lobbying Austin and in the distribution of mailings to districts requesting they not opt to change the school start date. Stay tuned.

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One Comment

  1. Thank you for this powerful research. I wish all administrators understood the importance of summer learning loss.

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