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Summer vacation is often a disaster for poor kids. Here's how to fix it.

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Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Few traditions are as simultaneously cherished and maligned as school summer vacation. The long break, three months on average and luxurious by international standards, has been cited by even President Obama as an example of American educational sloth.

But it turns out that what America needs might not be less summer vacation. It's more equal summer vacation — a summer vacation for low-income students that looks more like what their more advantaged peers get to experience.

Students do forget some of what they have learned over the summer, especially math

On average, kids come back to school in the fall about a month behind where they were at the beginning of summer break, says Catherine Augustine, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation who has studied summer learning loss.

All students forget some math. Exposure to reading can vary with socioeconomic background, but most parents and summer enrichment activities don't focus on the multiplication tables or subtraction skills.

In reading, the picture is more complicated. Studies have found that low-income students tend to fall behind during the summer, while wealthier students do not. That might be because wealthier students are more likely to read over the summer, or to participate in summer programs that require literacy skills.

Much of the national data comes from the 1990s, Augustine said. That's partly because the growing importance of end-of-year state tests under No Child Left Behind made districts reluctant to test students at the beginning of the year too — the best way to measure how much they've forgotten.

Year-round school might not be effective

One way to avoid the three-month summer break is year-round school — redistributing the school calendar to get rid of the long summer break, without adding additional days of school. This was a popular education reform idea in the past. In 1971, a poll found most teachers and administrators expected year-round school to become universal.

But the idea has fallen out of favor. Analyses of the research on year-round school has found that many of the studies were deeply flawed, but most didn't show an impact on students' test scores. Still, they found it's possible that year-round school helped students from low-income families.

The latest version of the idea is extending the school year — adding instructional days — which has been endorsed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, among others. Korea, Finland, and other countries that outscore the US on international tests also go to school longer. But so do kids in Denmark, which posts scores similar to the US. Canada manages to score better with just three extra days of instruction per year.

Some charter schools have found success with an extended school day and year: KIPP charter schools start at 7:30 am, end at 5 pm, require extra days of attendance in the summer, and have successfully boosted student test scores.

Districts, though, have had a mixed experience. The Miami-Dade Public Schools tried lengthening the school day and year for four years from 2004 to 2008 and switched back when test scores didn't improve.

"So I don't think that year-round school is the answer," Augustine said. "I'm not sure that all kids need to be doing something in the summer."

Good summer programs can help close the achievement gap

The answer, some research suggests, might not be getting rid of summer vacation, but rather making summer vacation better for low-income kids. That means more summer reading and more structured summer enrichment programs.

Those programs shouldn't just drill students on math and reading, Augustine says. They should include the trappings of summer camp — horseback riding or kayaking or sand volleyball, and also the reading and writing activities, such as putting on plays, more common in wealthy students' summers.

"All of those activities have been demonstrated to have a positive impact on kids, academically, socially, emotionally," Augustine says. Several evaluations of the effectiveness of summer programs on student achievement are ongoing.

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