Since most mothers now work outside the home, when school ends families take on logistical and financial burdens. Add to these woes the research on summer learning loss, and Op-Ed writer asks: Why do kids have 12 weeks off over the summer?
FINALLY, it’s back to school season. Kids are lamenting the end of summer vacation. Most parents — whether they dare to admit it or not — are breathing a sigh of collective relief. It’s not that we don’t love water sprinklers or lazy days at the pool. It’s that these sentimental notions of summer are based on a falsehood: that someone (typically a mother) is there to supervise the kids. In reality, working parents have spent the past few months cobbling together care arrangements, trying to find camps that won’t break the bank, and seeking the help of friends and family. Some 11 percent of young kids are engaged in “self-care,” which generally means watching TV.
Add to these woes the research on summer learning loss, and it raises the question: Why do kids have 12 weeks off over the summer? The fact is, they shouldn’t. Dramatically shortening summer — say, to a month or so — would have few downsides, and a lot of payoffs for families and kids.
Ask people why summer break exists, and they’ll often point to our agrarian past. Families needed their kids home over the summer to help with the crops. But although summer break has been around since the late 19th century, when public education became more widespread, cycles of farming had little to do with it. Instead, longer summers allowed wealthier families to flee the heat and grime of urban life.
Some wealthy families might still be able to send one parent, with the kids, to the shore for the summer, and a few middle-class families might have a parent around to watch the kids in the backyard, but such scenarios are increasingly rare. Most mothers now work outside the home. Seven in 10 moms with kids under age 18 are in the labor force and four in 10 moms are their families’ primary breadwinners. When school ends, families have to figure something out.
That “something” involves non-trivial logistical and financial burdens. According to the American Camp Association (ACA), the average cost of day camp is $304 per week (and $690 per week of sleepaway camp). A family with two kids would be facing more than $7,000 in child-care costs to cover the summer, which is why many families resort to shuttling kids between relatives and friends. This saves cash, but has another downside: introducing new schedules and routines, and driving arrangements, and increasing the instability in kids’ lives relative to the school year. With mothers taking on more of this invisible work in families than fathers, summer break becomes yet another obstacle to achieving equity in the workforce.
These might be worthwhile costs if summer breaks achieved something great for children, but the research points in the complete opposite direction. Surprisingly little is known about the quality of most summer programs. We do know that kids lose on average 2 months of mathematical skills every summer, and low-income kids lose another 2-3 months in reading. Summer learning loss during elementary school accounts for two-thirds of the achievement gap in reading between low-income and higher-income peers by ninth grade.
Given these downsides, why do we still have lengthy summer breaks? That women deal with the majority of the disruptions is possibly one reason, but there are others. Longer school years would require paying teachers more, or hiring additional staff. It may mean broadening the curriculum to include enrichment beyond traditional subjects. It may mean rethinking the calendar, and having short breaks spread throughout the year. While not easy, these steps are within reach.
True, kids need down time, as do parents. But four to six weeks provides plenty of time for chasing down ice cream trucks, and weekends provide plenty of open space too.
Let’s be realistic. Lengthy summers magnify the inequalities among families, hinder the learning of disadvantaged kids, and cause headaches for most parents. Long summers are an anachronism. Shortening summer, even incrementally, will make a positive difference in children’s learning and the well-being of families.