---- — CHICAGO — It's mid-August and parents across the country are breathing a sigh of relief that their tours of duty as surrogate educators finally will end.
It's a burden that many parents bear because they know that the only effective prevention against what's commonly known as "summer learning loss" — the erosion of academic skills, particularly in reading and math, that happens when kids veg out all summer — is to keep kids actively engaged in mind-sharpening recreation. Yet it is mostly those parents who are middle-class or wealthy who can plow money into making this happen.
For children whose parents can afford it, there really isn't the kind of lazy, relaxed summer you and I might remember from our childhoods — back when getting into a good college was not a goal set at birth. Kids from families with resources effectively go to school year-round because their summers are filled to the brim with enrichment activities.
This year, with one son going into the treacherous, teachers-take-the-gloves-off seventh grade and my oldest entering the college-prep track at our public high school, "summer" at my house has been a whirlwind of activity.
There were multiple book-reading projects, crafts for rainy days, a few week-long day camps for each boy and some half-day activities — archery, Lego engineering, leadership skills — plus a month-long academic institute for our soon-to-be-freshman, not to mention the year-round commitments to boxing classes and music lessons.
Oh, and we went on a family vacation specifically chosen to expose the boys to a part of the country they'd previously only read about in textbooks. This on top of our regular summer trips to visit extended family and enjoy local cultural events.
It was wonderful, but though the kids were near home and not in elite, private sleep-away camps, it was still pricey. Even though we bought used books, took advantage of discounted resident-only rates at our local school, park district and community college, used frequent-flier miles and clipped many coupons, it was a stretch.
Not to mention exhausting. My husband, a teacher on summer "vacation," had a day where, between ferrying one kid here and another there, he spent almost six hours in the car.
These aren't complaints but, rather, an illustration of the crucial, little-talked-about, months-long experience that helps drive the academic achievement gap between the haves and the have-nots: summer vacation.
It's the time when parents who aren't lucky enough to be home during summer — or can't afford to provide learning experiences for their kids — spend what little energy they have just making sure their kids get fed during the day and hoping they stay safe.
This must change. And one actionable way to do it is to keep those kids who would otherwise spend summer watching TV or hanging around all day in school instead.
In a thought-provoking research piece titled "Ending Summer Vacation Is Long Overdue — Here's How to Pay for It" on the Brookings Institution blog, "The Brown Center Chalkboard," education researcher Matthew M. Chingos lays it out for us.
Chingos suggests that, at least for schools with high-risk populations, increasing class sizes and then having those classes run for a longer amount of time throughout the year could result in meaningful increases in academic achievement. His linchpin is that larger classrooms can serve as the variable that keeps total teacher salaries constant.
"I've done a bunch of research on class size and it's really pretty mixed. Folks think larger classes are bad, but some studies show outcomes from smaller classes are not much different than from larger ones," Chingos told me. "So if smaller classes don't seem to produce a big benefit, maybe we can redeploy those resources in more productive ways."
His back-of-the-envelope estimates didn't take into account the ultra-thorny issues of the "non-salary costs of lengthening the school year, such as [certain] teacher benefits, administrator compensation, and facilities costs (including air conditioning)," which might make his premise seem like a non-starter to some.
But it's a thought-experiment that's well worth considering if we're ever going to bridge the poverty gap in academic achievement.
Simply put, the children of those who work year-round in jobs living paycheck to paycheck are many. Their ability to successfully compete in the knowledge economy may depend on how creative we can be to ensure their brains don't drain away during summer vacation.
Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.