The Downside of a Longer Summer Break

The beginning of the school year is upon us, and with it has come talk about reviving a state mandate to tell schools when they can begin and end the school year. After all, we all just want to enjoy our summer like in the good old days, right?

Unfortunately, the quest for a longer summer comes with a downside for a majority of students in Alabama.

Longer summers are detrimental to students who need the most help in school—those from low-income homes. Regardless of what you believe about why low-income students tend to struggle in school, there is no question that keeping them out of school during the summer disproportionately hurts them more than their middle-income peers.

Research shows that low-income students, who make up 59% of Alabama’s K-12 students, suffer the most from “summer learning loss.” This is exacerbated with longer summers. In particular:

  • A study from Johns Hopkins attributes two-thirds of the achievement gap between low-income students and their higher income peers to summer learning loss.
  • Another study from Duke found that while both low- and middle-income students lose some math skills during the summer, low-income students also lose reading and spelling skills.

Here’s a short video that sums up what can happen:

Time in the classroom isn’t a “silver bullet” to solving our educational problems, but it helps.

According to the National Center for Time and Learning, schools that are having the most success with low-income students are those that have longer school days and years. A 2013 article from the Alabama School Boards magazine delves into these issues further, and the NCTL has some great resources on its website.

Beyond low-income students, Alabama is actually behind when it comes to the amount of time students spend in school. In the U.S., 180 days is the national average, but that’s fewer days than other developed nations. Students in Finland go to school for the equivalent of 190 days a year, and in Japan they’re in school for much longer—the equivalent of 243 days! This op-ed from the Huntsville Times from 2012 includes the lengths of several other countries’ school years.

In 2012, Alabama passed legislation mandating the start and end dates of the school year in order to give a boost to the tourism and camp industries (as discussed in both the Huntsville Times op-ed and Alabama School Boards article linked to above). Fortunately, that law had a sunset provision that ended it before the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Not only was that law unhelpful for low-income students, it was also ineffective in terms of improving the economy.

A report released last February from the Legislative Fiscal Office on the law’s effectiveness calls into question any economic benefit. It concludes on page 4 that while there may have been some positive impact in some localities, “there is very little additional state revenue that could be attributed to the Act 2012-482.”

Alabama does not need to revive the state-level mandate for when the school year should begin and end. Instead, we need to consider ways that we can use time more wisely to help students who need it the most.

Related article: Education non-profit also supports shorter summers in Alabama (opinion,