National Summer Learning Day and the Ironies of Summer

06/21/2011 11:52 am ET | Updated Aug 21, 2011

On June 21, the first day of summer, programs and communities across the country will be celebrating National Summer Learning Day -- and contemplating the ironies of this enigmatic season.

Summer seems fleeting; think summer love and melting ice cream cones. But in fact, the learning losses it creates for children are permanent.

Summer seems frivolous, unimportant. But research shows summer slide is a major, cumulative contributor to the achievement gap in this country between low-income children and their middle-income peers.

Summer seems active, a time when kids would burn calories without even thinking about it. In fact, research shows children gain weight at a faster rate during the three months of summer than they do during the school year.

Summer school seems like a cruel oxymoron. But some school districts that have developed engaging, visionary summer programs have seen such encouraging results for students that they are maintaining and even expanding summer school in these tight budget times. New RAND Corporation research affirms summer programs can make a difference in disrupting the educational losses of summer.

Summer seems magical, and it is. But this leads to magical thinking about a season that many of us romanticize.

When the school doors close, the reality is that children with means and opportunity head off to enriching camps, interesting vacations, and hours of leisurely reading in a backyard hammock. Those children return to the classroom in the fall ready to move ahead in the next school year. Children without options stay inside without adequate supervision or nutrition, steadily forgetting what they have learned during the school year, because their parents still need to work but cannot afford or even find a safer place for them to spend the summer.

Programs, camps, and libraries across the country are trying to close these gaps and make summer a growing season for all kinds of children. The possibilities are as numerous as the pins on the National Summer Learning Association's Summer Learning Day map, which displays hundreds of events to celebrate summer learning from June to August. They're as big as a gathering of 200 middle-schoolers on the steps of the California State Capitol who will interview leaders about their summer experiences, and as simple as a camp show and tell in Tampa, Fla. They're as whimsical as a Western night in Omaha, Neb., featuring cowboy poetry and chuck wagon beans, and as serious as an anti-bullying summit in Cincinnati.

These events illustrate the most promising irony of summer: Summer setbacks have been with us for a very long time. But the solution is right in front of us, if we just reach out and seize it.