Human Events Blog

Is summer vacation making kids dumber and fatter?

Is summer vacation making kids dumber and fatter?

Writing at Bloomberg News, President Obama’s former Office of Management and Budget Director, Peter Orszag, strove to explain “How Summer Is Making U.S. Kids Dumber and Fatter.”

This is a provocative thesis – stated in precisely those words, in the headline – so Orszag brings some evidence to the table.  “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,” Orszag tells us.

Well, far be it for me to argue with a summary of a review of some studies!  Other studies purport to show that this “summer fade” effect “varies substantially by income and race.”  Orszag doesn’t go into details of precisely how, other than to assert that “each summer students of high socioeconomic status continue to learn, while those of low socioeconomic status fall behind,” and the effect persists to some degree, all the way through college.

Might I venture to suggest that this “summer fade effect” might have something to do with the way kids of varying “socioeconomic status” prepare for their return to school in the fall, as well as what they do on their summer vacation?  And this probably has some correlation to how seriously they view academic endeavors in general, during the regular school year?

What’s more, another study cited by Orszag found “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 their bellies allegedly fill as their minds empty, and the effect even more clearly extends the body-mass trends exhibited during the school year.

Orszag’s proposed solutions include, most obviously, doing away with summer vacation, which he knows will not sit well with either teachers or students.  Less dramatically, he suggests various voluntary summer education programs, funded by some combination of taxpayers and participating families.  However, his own article goes on to note that the educational benefits from such programs have been found modest at best.

I don’t have any difficulty imagining how I’d have reacted to the idea of abolishing summer vacation when I was a kid, and I don’t see how two or three more months added to the school year would be feasible, given the immense “administrative” overhead costs that come with all public education endeavors.  But the question that came most strongly to mind after reading Orszag’s piece was, “Why is this suddenly a problem now?”

We’ve had summer vacations forever, haven’t we?  They certainly predate my time in elementary school, which was at least a decade ago.  Okay, two.  Three.  No, wait… er, could we just go with “at least three decades?”  Anyway, it was a long time ago.

What has changed so dramatically, to make summertime flab and dumbness such a huge crisis?  America’s children used to perform far better academically, summer vacations notwithstanding.  The decline in their performance corresponds much more sharply with the establishment of the Department of Education than summertime idleness.  Instead of plowing more money into the educational system, shouldn’t we be asking more probing questions about the value we’re getting for the gigantic sums we currently invest?

There could be a number of factors contributing to the “summer fade” effect, ranging from cultural attitudes toward learning, to greater indulgence in less physical forms of childhood amusement.  But I’ll throw out three possibilities I’ll bet the establishment doesn’t want to discuss:

1. Fewer stay-at-home mothers are available to coordinate summertime activities, and provide intellectual stewardship for vacationing kids.

2. Lower quality public education during the year leaves children headed into summer with less scholastic discipline.

3. Summer jobs for older kids have become far more difficult to obtain, as the economic slowdown wipes out the kind of opportunities they used to enjoy.

Families, schools, and society aren’t what they used to be.  It’s not surprising that the nature of summertime has changed, too.

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