With persistent achievement gaps being exacerbated by the “summer learning loss,” some policymakers are wondering if summer holidays are too long.

I might be the first one at the OECD to invoke the lyrics of the 1970s rock star Alice Cooper, but “School’s Out”, illustrates an important issue in education policy: out for summer/out till fall/we might not come back at all. Following the summer holiday, many students don’t come back with the same knowledge they left with in the spring and often lose academic focus that can take months to regain.

 

The phenomenon, the “summer learning loss” has become an important issue for policymakers, including President Barack Obama, who claims students need to spend more time in school to remain internationally competitive. In the US, students spend an average of 180 days in school whereas in Japan the average is 200 and South Korea the number is 204 (see OECD Education at a Glance indicator D4.1).

 

What’s wrong with a bit of a summer break? The possibilities of the summer holiday are endless for some families. Kids can explore the outdoors, attend summer camp, or even start reviewing for the coming year. In France for example, revision classes for the baccaluréat, are increasingly popular during the summer to help kids maintain their level or catch up. These varied summer experiences can be an important complement to the yearlong academic grind.

Many recent studies have shown, however, that the gap between students from different socio-economic levels is widened over the summer. Kids who don’t go on vacations or participate in camps might end up watching TV all day. Furthermore, summer can be a financial hardship for families who can’t afford quality programs or care for kids during the long time off.

 

Some schools are taking action against the long summer. A secondary school in the UK recently introduced a five-term year with four equal breaks of two weeks and a four-week summer holiday. Under the new system, the number of students receiving good test scores increased.

 

There’s no easy answer. Extending the school year might not go over well with teachers, who value the 8- to 12-week reprieve. With education budgets stretched, it will be hard to justify spending on keeping facilities open longer, especially during the hot summer months when air conditioning might be necessary. Nevertheless, kids are losing as much as a two-month’s equivalent of skills they learned during the school year every time they come back in the fall. The benefits of funding a longer academic year or even more accessible quality summer programming might outweigh the costs.

 

With policymakers focusing on staying internationally competitive through improving education, school may be out for a shorter summer in the future.

 

Tell us what you think: Will a longer school year improve education outcomes?

 

See: OECD Education at a Glance, 2009