This week, as kids and adults were wilting in the heat, Christina Duncan Evans, a high school teacher in Baltimore, made the case against summer vacation. “With so many huge education-reform ideas under discussion,” she asks, in a piece at Education Week, “why isn’t altering summer vacation on the table?”
Evans talks of the loss of knowledge and skills—or “summer slide,” as it’s now known—during the nine to ten weeks of the U.S. break. A danger, in particular, for low-income students, as the New America Foundation noted in a recent forum on the phenomenon:
The so called “summer slide” in educational achievement hits young children from low-income families the hardest. Without opportunities to read together with adults, to practice new skills and to gain exposure to new words and ideas, far too many young children lose two to three months of reading skills each summer. Scholars have documented that two-thirds of the ninth-grade reading achievement gap can be attributed to this loss in the elementary school years alone.
Evans calls state policymakers on their hypocrisy: how can they claim they’re data-driven, and not act on the information they have? And how can they be complicit in maintaining such an antiquated model of schools, one that’s wholly inadequate to the task of producing those 21st-century thinkers for a global economy? Our high-performing competitors, she asserts, spread the breaks around, throughout the year. And she’s not above venting, noting that the burden of improving outcomes falls disproportionately on the adults working in schools, not on students and families. “Asking ordinary families to make substantial changes is a much tougher sell,” she writes—after mentioning the potent summer camp lobby.
Evans is right that teachers bear a great burden. But she needs a little data review herself. As Duke economist Helen Ladd has concluded, citing a robust evidence base, families’ socioeconomic status is strongly correlated to student achievement. The education policies du jour—which promote a punitive form of accountability—are putting tremendous pressure on Evans and her peers to compensate for deep, structural inequalities that perpetuate achievement gaps. It’s not surprising that she’s carping about the length of summer vacation. But she seems to be grasping at straws.
A shorter hiatus, or more frequent breaks, might ward off some of that dreaded skill decline. Some states have already tinkered with this tradition. And it would likely be easier on parents as well. But then there’s that powerful camp lobby, protecting its sylvan turf. Participants in the New America event pondered the use of well-deployed technology to close the summer gap, or the ways in which “digital connections might help parents tap into affordable and motivating opportunities for their children to experience the joy of reading and learning, offline and on.”
Who can argue against the joy of reading and learning or equitable access to technology? I won’t. But here’s my beef on the slide. For the children of the socioeconomically well-endowed, for whom “affordable and motivating opportunities” are a dime a dozen, summer has long been a time for fun and daydreaming, playful and intellectual enrichment, and meeting the challenges of nature. A few of the things that we know nurture growth and a sense of competence in children who are lucky enough to have them. Many of the kids we label “disadvantaged” have a surfeit of these opportunities, particularly the ones outdoors—the impetus for the founding of Outdoor Afro, a “social community” that reconnects African-Americans with nature through camping, hiking, biking, birding, fishing, and gardening. The repercussions for children’s healthy physical, cognitive, and emotional development in the absence of such experiences are worthy of our serious consideration.
To suggest that “those children” be tethered to technology or consigned to a narrowly focused, academic regimen in the service of benchmark maintenance and ever-higher test scores is to pervert the notion of equity. It’s also hypocritical. Would we want the same for “our” children?
Photo Credit: Kristin B. Eno