General Education

Summer Brain Drain Has a Lot to Do With the Education Gap

Summer Brain Drain Has a Lot to Do With the Education Gap
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KeriLynn Engel June 27, 2014

We look at studies that examine the connection between income, education opportunities, and summer brain drain.

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If you’re a parent, student, or educator, you’ve likely heard of the horrors of summer brain drain.

Also nicknamed summer slide or summer setback, it’s not just a scare tactic to trick kids into summer school, but a real phenomenon that’s been documented by researchers for the past several decades.

So what’s summer brain drain all about, and what can be done to plug the learning leak? Read on to find out what these researchers have discovered.

# What Is Summer Brain Drain?

Summer brain drain is the belief that over the summer break students stop learning and even lose some of what they’ve learned during the school year.

In the United States, the school year is about 180 days from fall to spring, leaving students with two to three months of summer freedom. Looking at a comparison between students who take standardized tests before and after the summer break, many students tend test worse at the end of summer break than they do at the beginning, leading to the theory of summer brain drain.

# What Are the Studies That Prove This?

The gap in summer brain drain between students was first documented in 1906. Typically, researchers have measured summer brain drain by making comparisons between the scores of standardized math and reading tests taken by students in the spring and fall. According to this research, students tend to perform lower on their fall tests.

In general, lower-income students seem to be affected more than their middle- and upper-income peers, losing several months of math and reading skills every summer. Some researchers conclude that the entire education gap between lower- and upper-income students is due to the cumulative effect of the knowledge lost after years of summer brain drain.

What’s missing from summer brain drain research, however, are other kinds of learning that take place over the summer. Students learn other skills during the summer from their families, friends, and communities that aren’t so easy to measure, like intergenerational learning, relational skills, and even practical math skills used to play games.

# What’s Being Done About Summer Brain Drain?

Advocates of year-round school use these summer brain drain studies to argue that all students should be in summer school — especially disadvantaged children. Others argue that in the poorly-funded schools attended by lower income students, those summer school days would just be wasted.

The schools that low-income students attend are often under-funded and may be poorly managed, and keeping students in those kinds of schools year-round would arguably make them miss out on that enriched and varied summer learning experience that standardized tests can’t measure.

One reason that middle- and upper-class students fare better during the summer is thought to be because they’re more likely to have access to books at home and to participate in activities such as summer camp and trips to the zoo or museum. Keeping children engaged in these types of activities during the summer, instead of just staying home watching TV all summer long, is theorized to help prevent summer brain drain.

Keeping children engaged in fun summer learning activities will keep them from falling behind on those standardized tests. An upcoming article will share practical tips for fighting summer brain drain in your child, with ideas for activities that will sneak in math and reading skills while still having summer fun.

# # #Check out our top list for ways your child can [keep her brain active throughout the summer]


Chen, K., Kigamwa, J., Macey, E., Phelps, J., Simon, M., Skelton, S., et al. (2013, July 1). Summer: A Vacation from Learning? A Critical View. Equity Dispatch, pp. 1-4. Retrieved from Great Lakes Equity Center

Alexander, K. L., Entwisle, D. R., & Olson, L. S. (2007). Lasting consequences of the summer learning gap. American Sociological Review, 72, 167-180.

Smith, M. (2007). Stop summer academic loss: An education policy priority. MetaMetrics, Inc. Retrieved from The Lexile Framework for Reading

Drehle, D. V. (2010, July 22). The Case Against Summer Vacation. Time magazine. Retrieved from Time Magazine

Cooper, H., Valentine, J. C., Charlton, K., & Melson, A. (2003). The effects of modified school calendars on student achievement and on school and community attitudes. Review of Educational Research, 73, 1-52.

Alexander, K. L., Entwisle, D. R., & Olson, L. S. (2007). Lasting consequences of the summer learning gap. American Sociological Review, 72, 167-180.

Verachtert, P., Van Damme, J., Onghena, P., & Ghesquière, P. (2009). A seasonal perspective on school effectiveness: Evidence from a Flemish longitudinal study in kindergarten and first grade. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 20, 215-23.


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