Ending Summer Vacation is Long Overdue—Here’s How to Pay for It



By 08/08/2013

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Summer is a popular time to write opinion pieces calling for the end of summer vacation as an anachronism that widens achievement gaps between rich and poor students.  The details of the argument vary—see examples from summers 20092010,20112012 and 2013—but the basic premise rests on research indicating that students from disadvantaged backgrounds experience learning loss over the summer while their more affluent peers often make learning gains.

There’s clearly a slam-dunk case for eliminating—or at least dramatically shortening—summer vacation, which fits into a broader push to lengthen the school year beyond the 180 days that is typical in the U.S.  Many high-performing charter schools have longer school days and years.  President Obama has called for a longer school year, pointing to the fact that students in countries such as South Korea attend school for many more days than their American counterparts.  Figure 1 shows that the school year in the U.S. is shorter than in most other countries for which the OECD collects data.

But ending summer vacation isn’t as simple as passing a law extending the school year by roughly two months—it has to be paid for somehow.  Teachers will expect to be paid for working significantly more days, and there are other costs of keeping schools open (such as air conditioning in many parts of the country).  It may well be the case that these costs are justified by the achievement gains of having students spend more time in the school, but in the current fiscal environment substantial increases in educational spending are unlikely to be forthcoming.

How can schools substantially lengthen the school year without spending any more money than they currently have?  One potential strategy is to increase class size in order to free up resources that can be used to pay teachers for the extra days worked.  In the U.S., the typical elementary student is enrolled in a class of 20 students with a teacher paid an average of about $56,000.  Increasing the school year by 30 days (six out of about nine weeks of summer vacation), and paying teachers the same rate per day, would mean a salary increase of about $10,000.  This could be accomplished—without any impact on overall spending on teacher compensation—by increasing class size by 3.3 students.

There’s no doubt that teachers and parents prefer smaller classes, but what would the impact on student learning be of increasing class size by this modest amount in order to make a large increase in the number of days students spend in school?  Research by Maria Fitzpatrick, David Grissmer, and Sarah Hastedt indicates that 30 more days in school would increase student achievement by about 0.15 standard deviations.  This is a conservative estimate, asresearch by Dave Marcotte and Benjamin Hansen indicates the effect may be twice as large.  The research on class size is decidedly mixed, but the largest estimates (from the Tennessee STAR study) imply that a three-student increase in class size in the early grades would decrease test scores by 0.05 standard deviations after one year (and by less in future years).

Putting these effects together means that adding 30 days to the school year increases student achievement by 0.10 standard deviations—or about 20 days of learning, with the increase in class size accounting for the other 10 days.  These admittedly rough estimates do not take into account the non-salary costs of lengthening the school year, such as teacher benefits, administrator compensation, and facilities costs (including air conditioning).  But even if those costs doubled the class-size increase needed to keep costs the same—an unlikely scenario—ending summer vacation would still increase achievement by 0.05 standard deviations, or 10 days of learning.  And of course my use of a class-size effect on the larger end and a days-in-school effect on the smaller end means that the total effects may well be larger than my conservative estimates suggest.

Figure 2 shows the effect of adding fewer or greater numbers of days to the school year.  As more days are added, the class size needed to keep total teacher salaries constant increases.  But the total effect on test scores also increases because the positive effect of adding a day to the school year is always greater than the negative effect of the needed reduction in class size.  For example, adding eight weeks (40 days) to the school year would require a class size of 24 (four students larger than the current average) and would increase test scores by 0.12 standard deviations.

The consequences of a longer school year also vary by state.  This spreadsheet shows the change in class size and teacher salary that would be needed in each state to lengthen the school year by 30 days without changing overall expenditures on teacher salaries.  States that already have classes on the larger side may be less comfortable increasing class size in order to allow students to stay in school longer.  But the estimated effects on achievement of adding 30 days to the school year are tightly clustered around the 0.10 estimate for the nation as a whole.

Extending the school year does not necessarily have to be adopted as a state-level reform.  Given the evidence that students from disadvantaged backgrounds lose ground academically over the summer while other students do not, districts that serve large populations of low-income students should be most interested in trading class size for school days as a strategy to improve student achievement.  Districts might even target longer school years at individual schools where they believe students are most likely to benefit from more time in school.

The research on summer learning loss makes it clear that summer vacation is an important driver of inequality in academic achievement.  Fortunately, it appears to be the case that our public education system can afford to end this anachronism, even in trying economic times.

—Matthew M. Chingos

This first appeared on the Brown Center Chalkboard.




Comment on this article
  • David Britten says:

    I always love it when researchers point to longer school years in other countries. What they conveniently forget is that in many cases the instructional day is shorter than U.S. to provide for planning, lesson studies, and curriculum work by teachers. Not here.

    Take Finland for example – the average instructional day is 3 hours and 45 minutes, starting between 8 and 9 am and ending between 1 and 2 pm. In my district, the instructional day is 6 hours and 30 minutes per day. We have 177 instructional days for 1,150 hours per year. According to your chart, Finland has 189 days for a total of 708 hours per year.

    It would be a much better study if your chart included length of instructional day, number of days, typical year starting date, and typical year ending date.

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    If school is not very good, it’s not clear that it is made better by having more of it. It’s like the old Catskills joke where one person complains that the food is so horrible and the other says, “Yes, and such small portions too!”

    Maybe we should be considering how to expand access by disadvantaged students to enriching activities other than school. More advantaged parents see the benefits of a mix of school and other enriching activities year-round, why wouldn’t less advantaged folks benefit from access to that same mix of experiences?

  • Matt Chingos says:

    Jay,

    Are you not convinced by the research evidence cited in the post indicating that more days in school translates into increased achievement? In any case, I think you’re right that a longer school year should be weighted against other productive uses of the time. However, I’d worry that summer programs targeted at disadvantaged kids would have quality issues as well, especially if offered at scale.

    Matt

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    Hey Matt,

    I’m not convinced by research claiming that significantly expanding the school year will translate into improved outcomes in the US. The cross-country research is plagued by endogeneity. Policymakers and the public in countries that have higher quality schools may be more willing to have more days of that higher quality schooling. In the US we may be sensibly limiting the number of days of our lower quality schooling to make room for non-school experiences over the summer.

    And studies within the US that rely on exogenous sources of variation of the number of school days, such as the timing of testing or the amount of snowfall, do not capture the potentially negative effects of school crowding out other enriching activities.

    It is dangerous to extrapolate out of sample by suggesting that the tiny benefits of one or two extra days of school before testing means that we would get the same rate of benefit from adding several weeks or months over the summer. We should also keep in mind that there are important skills and outcomes that non-school experiences may convey that are not captured by our very limited testing data.

    I agree with you that we should be concerned about the quality of non-school experiences, especially as we increase their scale. But we should try larger-scale programs of providing enriching non-school experiences to disadvantaged kids and see how that goes before giving up on the idea that children benefit from a variety of school and non-school experiences. The behavior of elites supports the theory that children may best be served by a mix of experiences. Let’s not dispense with the wisdom of that crowd by straight-lining out of sample from exogenous micro-variation or depending on obviously endogenous foreign results.

    –Jay

  • Matt Chingos says:

    Jay,
    Thanks for these comments. My analysis was based on studies using within-U.S. variation, not the cross-country variation which is problematic for the reasons you list. You are right that it may be a stretch to extrapolate from a marginal change in days of schooling to elimination of summer vacation. Clearly the risk of getting the wrong answer increases as the degree of extrapolation (number of added days) increases, and I particularly agree with your point about having to worry about crowd-out of other activities (although for many disadvantaged kids it may be the case that crowding-out the summer activities currently undertaken is exactly the point of extending the school year).
    But I still stand by my argument (based on back-of-the-envelope calculations) that it is important to consider tradeoffs in education, and that class size is an especially attractive target in many places given its low benefit-to-cost ratio.
    Matt

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    Hi Matt,

    I agree with you that many disadvantaged kids are not engaged in any kind of enriching activities over the summer. But the choice should not be between that status quo and more school days. The choice should be between more school days and more non-school enriching activities.

    And I agree with you that low student teacher ratios are probably a waste of resources. But there are alternative uses for those monies other than more school days. We could use those monies for non-school activities. We could also return those money to taxpayers (perhaps in a progressive refund of taxes) so that families have more money in their pockets to purchase enriching non-school activities.

    Lastly, I appreciate that you were referencing within US studies that rely on exogenous sources of micro-variation in school days. I just mentioned the problems with international comparisons because people also sometimes reference that research and because you did produce a chart with an international comparison of school days.

    My overall point is that while I agree that we have a problem with summer decline for disadvantaged kids, I think we should be exploring non-school options for addressing that problem. We have good theoretical reasons supported by the behavior of elite families to suggest that a mix of experiences is better than just adding more of the same sub-par school experience. And the evidence is not strong enough to steer us away from experimenting with this theory.

  • Michael Umphrey says:

    So there’s a slam dunk case to be made for ending summer vacation, even though “more affluent” kids make gains during the summer.

    So it made sense for an upscale school to close their science lab to reduce the learning of the top kids, in order to reduce the “achievement gap.”

    We will never arrive at a state where we will not be able to measure inequalities between people. So eliminating all traces of inequality in educational outcome is a lot like regulating carbon–which is life. It provides for infinite progress, step by step, toward the servile state.

  • David Rowe says:

    Another in a never-ending series of suggested changes to schools, none of which, individually or in total, will overcome cultures which place little value on education.

  • Alice says:

    I am a high school teacher. Year round school-NOT Increasing class size-is the answer. It solves the retention issue, it solves summertime child care issues, it gives everyone more much needed breaks. The dilemma is high school athletics. All schools in that division have to be on the same schedule for it to work. Elementary and Middle schools have fewer challenges with year round. So, if we can mandate this change, life would be so much better for all involved.

  • Scott Richards says:

    Who needs more days? Maybe we need more effective time teaching / learning each day and much, much less time associated with startardized testing. Let’s start with ” personal accountability ” by all – Administrators, teachers, parents and students. In my opinion, if we ALL had and had maintained true personal accountability there would be no standardized testing, no federal government involvement and we all would be writing about another topic.

  • Richard W. Allen, Ed.S. says:

    Summer vacation is a time for families to reconnect. It is an opportunity for students to experience the workplace. It is a time for learning opportunities found only in summer camps. Scholar-athletes sharpen their skills in summer leagues. Musicians sharpen their skills in band camp. Leadership camps sharpen the skills of emerging leaders. Summer is a time for science camp, ROTC camp, Boys & Girls State, etc. The cost/benefit of summer vacation outweighs the need for extended school years. If students don’t benefit from their summer break, maybe that needs to be discussed instead of the tired discussion about extending the school year.

  • Steve says:

    Increasing class size by 4 students will have zero net impact on staffing in the district of 3500 students I run. A district would have to have seven sections ( in the same building) of a given grade or class to reduce staffing by one FTE. This is a school configuration that applies to less than 5% of schools in the US. Other than that, your idea makes perfect sense.

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