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School’s Out: Why Some Children Fall Behind

Written by: Bill Sherman on Monday, 15 June 2009, 6:54 PM

Conor Clarke, writing for the Atlantic, argues that the United States should end the tradition of summer vacation. He makes three compelling points:

First, the United States ranks near the lowest # of school-days per year.

  • Japan–243 days
  • South Korea–220 days
  • Israel–216 days

Compared to those countries, the United States’ school year of 180 days seems significantly short.

Secondly, research that schools serve as an equalizer, preventing children from lower socio-economic status (SES) families from falling further behind. When school is out, these children fall further and further behind. High SES families can offer a wealth of summertime activities and learning opportunities that lower SES families cannot easily match.

It’s worth quoting from “Are Schools the Great Equalizer” (Downey, von Hippel, and Broh, 2004) at length.

although schooling does not equalize high- and low-socioeconomic status children in the absolute sense, and although schooling does not necessarily ensure that they learn at the same rate when school is in session, schooling does reduce the rate at which inequality grows relative to a world without schools.
To make this result more concrete, consider two hypothetical children with standardized
SES values of -.66 and 1.67. The low-SES child has a household income of $40,000; his parents are high school graduates who work as a bartender and a garbage collector. The high-SES child has a household income of $100,000; his parents are a nurse with a B.S. degree and a lawyer with a J.D.

Using estimates from our model 3, the SES difference between these children predicts a reading gap of 6.90 points on the first day of kindergarten, which widens to 8.44 points by the start of first grade. This widening reflects 9.5 months of divergence at the kindergarten rate and 2.5 months of divergence at the summer rate. In the absence of schooling, however, these children might diverge at the summer rate for all 12 months, in which case the gap at the start of first grade would be even greater—not just 8.44 points but 11.37 points. Although the gap does not close in school, it does not widen as fast as it otherwise might.

Today’s competitive global economy requires a commitment to lifetime learning that differs significantly from past learning systems–such as the agrarian little-red schoolhouse model in the 19th century and the public-school factory model of the early 20th century.

We need to instill the values of lifetime learning within our culture. Today’s high-value jobs require a commitment to lifetime learning, and that trend will only become more common in the future. More and more jobs will require people to learn new skills and adapt.

While many of us recall lazy summers as a joy of the past, it’s worth asking whether those lazy days truly serve the next generation’s needs.

One Response to “School’s Out: Why Some Children Fall Behind”

  1. Kevin Stansen Says:

    Hi Bill,

    While this discusses the relevant ability of school to lesson the gap between low SES and high SES students, it does not address the affects on just high SES students. In the modern world it is just as important to give the maximum level of education and skills to the high SES, and especially the high-intelligence crowd. Erego, my natural response is:

    How do high SES youths with a wealth of opportunity available for their summers compare with SES youths who instead stayed in school?
    Over the long run, does the wealth of experiences that the high SES crowd increase their intellectual achievements by the time they reach college then comparable students who instead spent every summer in school?

    June 18th, 2009 6:00 am

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