02/22/2011 01:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Success Through Summer Learning

"Extended learning time" has been on the tips of the tongues of education reformers for several decades now. In 1983, A Nation at Risk, the document which told Americans that our education system produced inferior students compared to the systems of other countries, called on the United States to increase the "expectations, content, and time" of our education system. And since then, "increasing time" has mostly been interpreted to mean increasing the length of the school day.

But if we really examined the education systems of other high-performing nations, we would see that this is a misguided interpretation of what other nations do in terms of time use in school. In fact, American students spend almost double the number of hours in school per year than the students in the highest performing nations -- totaling, for example, by the time students are 18 almost two years more spent in school than students in Finland, one of the highest ranked countries in the world.

And whereas American students spend many more hours in the classroom than other nations' students, American students spend less days in the classroom per year -- the world's average of day's per year spent in school is 200, but American students spend just 180 days per year. What's more, American summer breaks are almost twice as long as the "summer breaks" (or the break between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next) of Japan and South Korea, two of the highest-performing countries in the world.

Of course, context is important, and it is perhaps misleading to not mention here that much of the educational success of industrialized countries such as Finland is often attributed to the low levels of childhood poverty in these nations as compared to the distressingly high level of childhood poverty in the United States.

However, a century of research on the achievement gap tells us that the way in which the school year is structured does matter within an imperfect American context. Research over the past one hundred years comes to a strikingly similar set of conclusions: all children are learning at relatively the same rate during the school year, but more than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities.

Educational research is so difficult to quantify because absolute truths are nearly non-existent in the social sciences, but here seems to be a conclusion corroborated by international comparisons. Nations that have longer school years and thus shorter summer breaks do not see the extreme achievement gap experienced in the United States, and the roots of the persistent achievement gap oftentimes points directly to summer learning loss.

So why do we in the United States continue to focus our good-intentioned sights on extending the school day and not on extending the school year, even when a century of research and international comparisons tell us that our limited funds would be better spent in this way? I would argue that this is because it is much easier to simply tack 30 minutes onto the school day here and there than really take a look at our anachronistic nine-months-on-three-months-off system that has been handed down to us through the centuries from our agrarian forefathers. Yes, it is easier to patch up what we've got than truly use research and experience to inform our practice.

In this time of tightening budgets and limited tax payer dollars, I challenge us in the United States to actually learn from what works, and not just settle for what is easiest or most convenient for some adults. If we really want to help all of our children fulfill their tremendous innate potential, summer must be a season for learning.