05/21/2013 02:09 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2013

School's Out for Summer--Now What?

As millions of children start streaming out of schools for a much-anticipated break, it's important to remember that there is a price to pay for summers free of learning. Students who don't engage in educational activities over the summer lose between one and three months of learning every year on average. In reading, the loss is cumulative; by the end of sixth grade, students who lose their reading skills over the summer will be as much as two full years behind their classmates.

So, for all the critical focus on how to improve the time our children spend in schools, we should also be looking at the time they spend away. And everything should be on the table--from how parents keep their kids engaged at home, to the prioritization of structured summer learning camps, and even the length of the school day, school week and school year.

We know from more than 100 years of research that the "summer slide" affects kids at every grade level, and across all economic categories. While the setback is often more pronounced in communities lacking resources, money does not buy immunity. If you don't stay engaged, you lose ground.

There are some easy steps. Parents and caring adults can help students develop a simple plan to stay sharp even during the slower days of summer. Start by familiarizing yourself with the new Common Core Standards, and know what your child will be expected to know in the upcoming year. Make reading a priority; just six grade-level books can prevent any summer reading loss at all, and many schools provide a summer reading list tied to the next year's curriculum. Family travel can be filled with lessons and learning--from calculating miles per gallon, to reading the history of different places on the itinerary.

For parents who don't have easy access to resources, or the time between jobs to fully manage their kids' summer learning experience, most communities offer support in the form of programs that keep children engaged in reading and other skills.

While all of those things can help, they may not be enough for a U.S. school system falling behind in the global economy. We are still leaving millions of children behind each year, and even our top performers are struggling to compete with the rest of the world. If we're serious about closing those gaps, we may ultimately need to consider other solutions, such as providing more opportunities for school-based learning during the summer months or even reimagining the school calendar itself.

Remember that an extended summer "vacation" is a hangover, at least in part, from an earlier, more agrarian society, where kids were needed at home in order for families to thrive. Today's families are more likely to need their children as prepared as they can be for an increasingly competitive and increasingly global job market. And for that, our students very likely need more time focused on learning.

That's an enormously complicated proposition, I know. The list of challenges and implications is daunting, and tempts us toward the status quo. But here's what we know: the status quo isn't working. If our goal is to set up our students for success, we should not be deterred by the challenges. We should not be afraid to put everything on the table in the search for what's best for our kids.

Maybe I'm the wrong person to talk about the merits of a summer free from work and learning. That was never an option for my siblings and me. As kids, we spent our summers working the large family garden like dinner depended on it (which it often did). At night, we discussed and debated important issues of the day and because I was fortunate to be raised in a family that loved stories, we read.

Not everyone is as lucky. And so as students across the country wait in anticipation for that final bell to ring, I think it's important to ask: what will they be up to this summer? And is the time away from learning worth the price that many of them will pay tomorrow?