Summer Vacation's Negative Impact on Learning

Traditional Summer Vacation: Does it Meet 21st Century Demands?

As happy as summer vacation may make students, there is significant research showing the academic achievement gap created by three months off. FUSE/GETTY Images

By the time students in the United States enter grade 12, they will have spent 96 weeks, or the rough equivalent of 2 out 13 required academic years, in time designated as summer vacation. Researchers have been bemoaning the loss of this collective time as they point to the negative consequences of summer vacation up to and including high school.. 

Negative Impact of Summer Vacation Research

A meta-analysis of 138 influences or “what works in education” was published (2009) in Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement by John Hattie and Greg Yates. Their results are posted on their Visible Learning website.  They ranked the effects of completed studies (national and international), and using the data combined from these studies, they developed a rating where any influence greater than .04 was a contribution to student achievement.

For their finding on summer vacation,  39 studies were used to rank the effect of summer vacation on student achievement. The findings using this data revealed summer vacation as having a negative effect ( -.09 effect) on education.

In other words, summer vacation ranked at the bottom of what works in education, a dismal 134 out of 138 influences..

Many researchers refer to the achievement damage done during these months off as summer learning loss or the “summer slide” as described on the US Department of Education's blog Homeroom.

A similar finding came from  “The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores: A Narrative and Meta-Analytic Review” by H. Cooper, et al. Their work updated the findings of a 1990 study that originally found:

"Summer learning loss is very real and has important repercussions in the lives of students, especially those with fewer financial resources."

There were several key findings outlined in their updated 2004 report:

At best, students showed little or no academic growth over the summer. At worst, students lost one to three months of learning.
Summer learning loss was somewhat greater in math than reading.
Summer learning loss was greatest in math computation and spelling.
For disadvantaged students, reading scores were disproportionately affected and the achievement gap between rich and poor widened.

This achievement gap between "haves" and "have nots" widens with summer learning loss.

Socio-Economic Status and Summer Learning Loss

Multiple studies have confirmed that students in low-income households develop an average two month reading gap during the summer. This gap is cumulative, and each summer's two month gap contributes to a sizable learning loss, especially in reading, by the time a student reaches grade 9.

Research published in the article "Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap"  by Karl L. Alexander, et al, charted how a student's socio-economic status (SES) plays a role is summer learning loss:

"We find that cumulative achievement gains over the first nine years of children's schooling mainly reflect school-year learning, whereas the high SES-low SES achievement gap at 9th grade mainly traces to differential summer learning over the elementary years."

In addition, a white paper commissioned by the Summer Reading Collective determined that two-thirds of the 9th grade achievement gap in reading could be between students from low-income households and their higher-income peers.

Other important findings findings pointed out that access to books was critical to slowing summer learning loss. Neighborhoods in low income areas with public libraries for student access to reading materials had significantly more gains in reading scores from spring to fall than students from high-income households with access to books as well as those from low-income households without access to books at all.

Finally, the Summer Reading Collective noted that socio-economic factors played a critical role in learning experiences (access to reading materials, travel, learning activities) stating:

"Differences in children’s summer learning experiences during their elementary school years can ultimately impact whether they earn a high school diploma and continue to college."

With the considerable amount of research documenting the negative impact of "summers off", one may wonder why the American public education system embraced summer vacation.

History of Summer Vacation: The Agrarian Myth Dispelled

Despite the widely held myth that the educational calendar followed farm calendars, the 178 day school year (national average) became standardized for an entirely different reason. The adoption of summer vacation was the result of an industrial society that opted to let urban students out of the sweltering cities during the summer months.

Kenneth Gold, a professor of education at the College of Staten Island, debunked the myth of an agrarian school year in his 2002 book School’s In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools.  

In the opening chapter,Gold notes that if schools were following a true agrarian school year, students would be more available during the summer months while crops were growing but unavailable during planting (late spring) and harvesting (early fall).  His research demonstrated that before the standardized school year, there were concerns that too much school was bad for the health of students and teachers:

“There was a whole medical theory that [people would get sick] from too much schooling and teaching” (25).

Summer vacation was the solution to these medical concerns during the mid-19th Century.  As cities expanded rapidly, concerns were raised about the moral and physical dangers that unsupervised summer posed to urban youth. Gold goes into great detail about the "Vacation Schools", urban opportunities that offered a wholesome alternative. The 1/2 day sessions in these vacation schools were attractive to participants and teachers were allowed to be creative and more lax, addressing the "fears of [mental] overtaxation" (125).

By the end of World War I,  these vacation schools had become more in line with a growing academic bureaucracy. Gold notes,

"...summer schools adopted a regular academic focus and a credit-bearing function, and they soon bore little resemblance to the vacation programs that preceded them" (142).

These academic summer schools were geared to allow students to gain extra credits, either to catch up or to accelerate, however, the creativity and innovations of these vacation schools diminished as the funding and staffing were in the hands of the "administrative progressives" that were overseeing the urban districts

 Gold traces the standardization of education noting the growing body of research on the adverse impact of summer vacation, especially on economically disadvantaged students as a growing concern.

His work on how American education served the needs of a continuously growing “summer leisure economy” clearly demonstrates the stark contrast of mid-19th Century’s academic standards with the growing demands of 21st Century academic standards with their emphasis on college and career readiness.

Stepping Away from Traditional Summer Vacation

Schools K-12, and post-secondary experiences, from community college to graduate universities, are now experimenting with a burgeoning market of opportunities for online learning. The opportunities bear names such as  Synchronous Distributed Course, Web-Enhanced Course, Blended Program, and others; they are all forms of e-learning.  E-learning is rapidly changing the design of the traditional school year as it can be made available beyond the walls of a classroom at varying times. These new opportunities may make learning available through multiple platforms throughout the year.

In addition, experiments with year-round learning are already well into their third decade. Over 2 million students participated (by 2007), and the research (Worthen 1994,  Cooper 2003) on the effects of year round schools explained in  What Research Says About Year-Round Schooling (compiled by Tracy A. Huebner) shows a positive impact:

"Students in year-round schools do as well or slightly better in terms of academic achievement than students in traditional schools;
"Year-round education may be particularly beneficial for students from low-income families;
"Students, parents, and teachers who participate in a year-round school tend to have positive attitudes about the experience."

On more than one follow-up to these studies, the explanation for the positive impact is simple:

"The loss of retention of information that occurs during the three-month summer vacation is lessened by the shorter, more frequent vacations that characterize year-round calendars."

Unfortunately, for those students without intellectual stimulation, enrichment, or reinforcement-whether they are economically disadvantaged or not- the long span of summer will culminate in an achievement gap.  


The artist Michelangelo is reputed to have said, "I am still learning" ("Ancora Imparo") at the age of 87, and while he never enjoyed the American public school summer vacation, it is unlikely he went for long periods without the intellectual stimulation that made him the man of the Renaissance.

Perhaps his quote could inverted as a question if there are chances to change the design of school academic calendars. Educators could ask, "Are they still learning during the summer?"

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Bennett, Colette. "Summer Vacation's Negative Impact on Learning." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Bennett, Colette. (2020, August 27). Summer Vacation's Negative Impact on Learning. Retrieved from Bennett, Colette. "Summer Vacation's Negative Impact on Learning." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 25, 2021).