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Summer brain drain revisited

By June 16, 2009June 16th, 20162 Comments

As part of Atlantic Monthly’s annual ‘ideas’ issue, out this month, Derek Thompson offers up a provocative list of not-so-quick fixes for the nation’s educational system (“10 Crazy Ideas for Fixing Our Education System“). While Thompson’s list mixes solutions old and new, readers might be surprised by the suggestion topping the list: the elimination of summer vacation.

Perhaps his suggestion is a bit extreme, but Thompson’s reasoning has a basis in sound research. Several high-profile studies from the past few years have noted that achievement gap margins tend to widen over the summer break. For a good summary of the reasons why, see this article in yesterday’s Washington Post. Middle class children are more likely to have books in the home and to attend high-quality summer programs in the summer, offsetting the loss in reading skills that occurs while students are on vacation. The 2007 study cited in the article found that differences in summer experiences explained two-thirds of the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged 9th graders.

Even high-quality programs are more likely to focus on reading than math, which explains why the reading achievement gap is more prevalent at summer’s end. Children (and adults) have more difficulty retaining specific processes than basic concepts over long periods of time – e.g., solving a quadratic equation versus reading a passage for comprehension. As a result, the greatest summer losses across the board are typically in math computation and spelling.

For more information on the effort to promote summer learning, check out the National Center for Summer Learning ( ahead of the July 9th National Summer Learning Day. In addition to research and policy briefs, the site offers suggestions for effective programming, leveraging community partnerships, and professional development options.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Thanks for the Summer Learning Day mention. I really like your blog–just happened by here today.

  • Kevin says:

    I agree. I am a high school math teacher, and I run summer programs to get kids to come in and work on their math skills over the summer. Without this program, the kids would be suffering much more so.

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