Matthew Yglesias does not like school summer holidays. In fact, writing for Slate, he comes across like a warm-weather Ebenezer Scrooge:
- “There’s no other public service that we would allow to just vanish for months at a time. To have no Army in February, no buses or subways in March, airports closed down for all of October, or the police vacationing en masse in December would be absurd. Schools, it turns out, matter a lot, too, and having them shut down all summer critically undermines them.”
- “The burden on parents is segmented by income, and the impact on children is as well. A 2011 RAND literature review concluded that the average student 'loses' about one month’s worth of schooling during a typical summer vacation, with the impact disproportionately concentrated among low-income students. ‘While all students lose some ground in mathematics over the summer,’ RAND concluded, ‘low-income students lose more ground in reading while their higher-income peers may even gain.’”
- “Poor kids tend to start school behind their middle-class peers, and then they fall further behind each and every summer, giving teachers and principals essentially no chance of closing the gap during the school year. Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Steffel Olson of Johns Hopkins University have research from Baltimore indicating that a majority of the achievement gap between high- and low-socioeconomic-status students can be attributed to differences in summer learning loss.”
- “…for many poor kids, subsidized school lunches on which they depend for sustenance essentially vanish during the summer months, leaving them both undertaught and underfed.”
Still, the counter-argument is that reforming the school year would be a surer way of helping these children than trying to improve their home lives (not that these approaches are mutually exclusive). Yglesias also has a riposte to those who say that shorter holidays would cost too much:
- “We could save a bunch of money by letting all the criminals out of jail for the summer months or randomly eliminate seventh grade, but that would be ridiculous.”
A longer school year would be a relatively cheap way of boosting the life chances of the most vulnerable children. After all, no additional buildings would be required – they already exist. Nor would additional staff be required – just the additional hours from the teachers we’ve already got. Moreover, any reduction in educational failure would result in long-term savings to the public purse.
There’d be a further benefit, which is not mentioned in Yglesias’s article. A school year punctuated by shorter, more evenly spaced holidays would mean that instead of grouping pupils by yearly intakes, they could be more easily grouped by half-yearly or even quarterly intakes. This would eliminate the significant disadvantage faced by the youngest pupils in each class. As any nursery or primary school teacher knows, small age gaps can make a big difference in the ability of children to keep up with their classmates.
Summer babies born to the poorest households therefore go through school at a double disadvantage. We should at least think about improving their chances.