Summer Is Making U.S. Kids Dumber and Fatter


kidsBy Peter Orszag

It’s July, and for many of us, that brings back fond childhood memories of family vacations, summer camp or long, happy days spent playing with friends. But this quaint notion of summers as a kids’ paradise is dangerously misleading, evidence from social research suggests.

After spending the summer away from the classroom, children return to school one month or more, on average, behind where they were when the previous year ended. Kids also tend to put on weight in the summer two to three times faster than they do during the school year.

To put it unkindly, the average child becomes dumber and fatter during the vacation. And although there’s no need to declare war on summer, there’s plenty we could do to combat the seasonal learning loss and weight gain.

Consider, first, the evidence for the summer fade effect. Taken together, a variety of studies indicate that students’ academic skills atrophy during the summer months by an amount equivalent to what they learn in a third of a school year, according to a review by Harris Cooper, a professor of education at Duke University, and several co-authors.

This deterioration, furthermore, varies substantially by income and race, and its impact persists even past childhood. Barbara Heyns, a sociologist at New York University who studied Atlanta schoolchildren in the late 1970s, found that although academic gains during the school year were not substantially correlated with income, summer decline was.

Subsequent studies have replicated the finding. Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle and Linda Olson of Johns Hopkins University, for example, found that the summer fade can largely explain why the gap in skills between children on either side of the socioeconomic divide widens as students progress through elementary school. Children from all backgrounds learn at similar rates during the school year, but each summer students of high socioeconomic status continue to learn while those of low socioeconomic status fall behind.

The impact is felt even years later. The learning differences that begin in grade school “substantially account” for differences by socioeconomic status in high-school graduation rates and in four-year college attendance, Alexander and his co-authors report.

The summer increase in children’s body-mass index has also been measured. In one study, Paul T. von Hippel, a sociologist then at Ohio State University, and his co-authors found that the average monthly gain in BMI for students moving from kindergarten to first grade was two to three times as fast during the summer as during either of the adjoining academic years. And the children most prone to obesity were most likely to put on additional weight during the summer.

So what can we do to fight summer learning loss and weight gain and restore the season’s halcyon reputation?

Let’s start with the most ambitious option: lengthening the school year. I have written previouslyabout the benefit of extending the hours of the school day. A similar argument applies to extending the academic year: More time at task helps children learn, and it would be worth the extra expense involved.

(I can already hear the groans from some teachers — even if the prospect of a longer school year would mean higher salaries. Having grown up in an academic family, I appreciate the benefits of the summer break, but in fairness few other professions get three months off.)

The second option is an idea proposed several years ago by Alan Krueger, now the chairman of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, and Molly Fifer, then a graduate student in economics at Princeton University: Offer students in kindergarten through fifth grade who qualify for free meals through the National School Lunch Program the opportunity to participate in a six-week summer enrichment program that would be focused on small-group instruction. Krueger and Fifer estimated that such a program would cost less than $2,000 per student. If the federal government paid half, the cost to U.S. taxpayers would be about $2 billion a year, and the benefits would be worth much more.

Some educators are not waiting for the federal government to act — which appears to be wise, given the inertia in a polarized Washington. For example, the National Summer Learning Association, with private funding, recently began a three-year “Smarter Summers” initiative in 10 cities, aimed at providing high-quality summer instruction for 20,000 students.

The third and least ambitious option is to provide voluntary summer reading programs for students of low socioeconomic status. A randomized experiment conducted by James Kim ofHarvard University and Thomas White of the University of Virginia showed that students developed better reading skills when they were provided with books during the summer and encouragement from teachers before the break began.

A voluntary summer reading program need not be expensive. Yet it’s not enough to merely give children books; encouragement from teachers and parents is also crucial. And for some students, even that may not be sufficient; in another study, Kim and Jonathan Guryan, then at the University of Chicago, found that a reading program for low-income, Spanish-speaking Latino children provided no measurable benefit in reading comprehension or vocabulary.

July should be a time of activity — for children and for lawmakers. When Congress finally gets around to considering the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it should include an aggressive program to reverse summer learning loss. Don’t bet on Congress fulfilling that assignment this year, but we should hold them to it before school is out for the summer of 2013.

Peter Orszag is vice chairman of global banking at Citigroup Inc. and a former director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration. The opinions expressed are his own.

{Bloomberg News}

{ Newscenter}


  1. Let kids be kids! My second grader has had enough by the middle (or beginning) of may, and we let him skip a few days over the last six weeks of school (teacher’s advice). When he was given summer homework, he did everything but the last page the first night, and he hasn’t looked at it since. If he doesn’t finish it until the last day before school (a more likely than not scenario), I will probably do it for him, as I would rather he has gotten his needed break as opposed to some misguided administrator’s need to show their students learn over the summer. He needs to run around outside (he barely know what a computer is), and check in/come home for supper once in a while, not be tortured with more sitting.

  2. Parents, please read with your children!!! In English it’s important, in Hebrew it is crucial. When they read in English, for most kids there is the enjoyment of comprehension, although if they have even a slight difficulty the decoding may take all of their energy and comprehension is lost. But for almost all of our kids (when they are younger for sure) davening is only about tedious decoding if they are even doing that. (Many just sing from rote.If you listen carefully you’ll hear how they often butcher the words.) Don’t just assume that they’re davening properly if you see them with a siddur or you send them to camp. Sit with them for 5 minutes a day (maximum) at least 4 times a week. Have them daven less than they do in school but have them read a short tefilla or kapitel Tehillim properly with an adult who reads well and is focusing on them. Set up an incentive program (not nosh if you’re concerned about the weight issue)to give them cheishek, besides what the teacher/Rebbe set up. We, in Chinuch have discovered that Reading for many, many children is not a skill that once learned is down pat. It’s almost like a muscle that if not used constantly will quickly atrophy. Your children’s future can be dependent on those few minutes a week that you invest. Studies have shown that an very large percentage of kids at risk are bright children who experience reading difficulties.

  3. NOT! There’s more to knowledge than book knowledge. Not everything gets measured on school tests. For instance, kids can (gasp!) actually have time to think over the summer – mull over what’s been happening in their lives, explore things that aren’t taught in school, learn to use their imaginations.

    And,learn things we have forgotten, like how to keep themselves occupied, how to manage time, how to decide what to do when, getting along with other kids in an unstructured environment. These are all called “executive skills” by the psychologists, and they’re crucial to success in life. And they don’t usually get taught effectively in the classroom.

    As for the “fatter” part, it’s due to spending more time in front of the TV – something from which most of our kids don’t suffer.

  4. There is nothing worse for the brain than inactivity. Just because the kid is active all day (in camp, outside, playing etc) does not mean that s/he is using their brain. The majority of what they learned in school will be forgotten unless it is reviewed. While it may not be so important for some, the majority of kids will regress and forget about half what they learned the previous year in school without some review.
    Please make sure your kids are reviewing at least some of what they learned from the past year, in some form or another on a regular basis throughout the summer.