Each year, when American students return to school after a two-month-long summer vacation, they find themselves having lost academic skills that they were expected to have mastered in previous years. As a result, far too many weeks that should be devoted to learning new topics end up being spent on relearning and reviewing content from previous courses. Many researchers and education specialists have analyzed this trend, and the consensus is that the prolonged duration of summer vacation is directly responsible for students falling behind when they re-enter school in the fall.
In the 2016–17 school year, ICSD students spent about 180 days in school, with a summer vacation around ten weeks long. While American students spend about as much time in class compared to students around the world, the current structure of the academic calendar is a major factor that contributes to lower average test scores for American students. This is because students are deprived of the essential repetition and review that support knowledge retention while they are away on their long summer vacations.
The leading expert on American summer learning problems, Harris Cooper of Duke University, first found in 1996 that the average American student loses about one month of in-school learning over the span of a ten-week long summer vacation. He went on to find that economically disadvantaged students lose almost three months’ worth of reading comprehension ability each summer, a testament to the fact that prolonged summer vacations most negatively impact students without access to out-of-school enriching experiences and academic practice. Studies since have only supported this trend, and it is time that school districts nationwide take action to ensure that students are prepared to continue learning when they re-enter schools in fall.
One solution to this negative trend would be to implement the year-round calendar system used in most nations worldwide. In this system, schools operate on a trimester system with three roughly equal periods that total 180 to 200 days. In between these periods, there are two-week-long breaks, allowing students longer and more frequent breaks during the school year. Additionally, a four- to six-week-long summer break exists, allowing students to enjoy time off without having to worry about vast amounts of learning loss during any of their breaks in the year. If American school districts were to instate the year-round calendar, students would ultimately get as much time off during the year as in the current system, but would come back to school having retained much more of the content taught in the previous school year.
Despite the obvious merits of the year-round calendar, this system would be met with harsh criticism. Supporters of the current summer calendar argue that the existing calendar allows children “liberty” and the freedom to be themselves during the warmest season of the year. Additionally, they point to summer as a time to enjoy valuable experiences, such as travel, camps, and higher-learning classes. However, it is important to consider that most disadvantaged children do not have access to such experiences, and do not receive the mandatory academic stimulation over summer to return to school ready to learn. The most important benefit of the year-round calendar is that it allows students to have the same amount of vacation time to relax and focus on being children, while also significantly decreasing the amount of learning loss during summer.
Opponents to the year-round calendar system have proposed a few less aggressive ways to promote summer learning and knowledge retention. Firstly, expanding offerings in summer school programs, advertising them further, and making summer school more accessible to all students would certainly help prevent learning loss. However, this course of action entails that many students would be deprived of their summer vacation, and it is unlikely that many would be motivated to spend their summers in school. Another proposal has been to implement homework assignments and take-home review materials over the summer. However, even with review assignments, many students would not have the in-home structure and environment to encourage their progress.
The year-round calendar system is the ideal way to solve America’s summer learning loss problem. It would reduce the amount of time students spend out of school during summer, but would allow them to have the same number of vacation days throughout the year. Students without activities and in-home academic support would not face the heavy disadvantages that they currently do, and American students of all socioeconomic situations would return to school ready to learn.