06/18/2014 04:00 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2014

What I Didn't Do on My Summer Vacation

Every morning I hear it: the kids' daily countdown -- "...only 3 days left, 2 days!" School is about to end -- freedom -- summer vacation is in sight. If any of you have a Rockwellian view of summer -- cue family station wagon rolling out of an L.L. Bean catalog weighted down with kids and fishing poles -- well, I guess nostalgia is nice. While for many kids summer is long-awaited, for many parents it's long-feared. It's a time when low-income kids are losing ground and gaining weight rather then gaining ground and losing weight; a time when they are slipping down the summer slide.

Let's try an exercise. Those of you who have kids 12 and under, pull out your phones. Now, look at your calendar. What will your kids be doing on July 16? Baseball camp? Soccer camp? Nature, or computer camp? Mine will likely be in art camp. The point is many of us, by May, have mapped out the summer for our young kids (older kids will be working summer jobs and if they're not, they really should be). We've had the discussions, rushed to get our kids into the right camps and have fully booked our kids for summer. And, when they sit down to write the iconic "What I did on my summer vacation" essay (I'm going to choose to believe that kids actually do that), they'll have something to say.

But for most low-income kids they, and their parents, don't know what they'll be doing the first morning after the last day of school, much less what they'll be doing all summer long. Actually, they do know -- they'll be watching TV and eating corn chips, which is to say they'll be doing nothing.

In fact, low-income kids lose about two to three months of learning during the summer while gaining weight more than two times faster than during the school year. They will lose ground --- ground they already have failed to gain. They will start school further behind than when they finished the previous spring. While most kids not engaged in some kind of summer learning experience lose a couple months of math proficiency, low-income kids also lose two months of reading skills while their middle-class peers make reading gains. By the fifth grade, low-income kids have fallen almost three years behind their middle-class peers. What's more, much of the achievement gap by the ninth grade can be attributed to the lack of involvement in an enriching summer experience. What about weight gain? According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, the amount of time kids now spend with entertainment media is up dramatically in the past five years, especially among kids of color. Kids now spend between seven and 10 hours a day involved in "media activities" outside of school. Fixating on tablets, phones, video games and computers are what we used to call "vegging in front of the TV."

During the school year, kids have structure and those who receive free and reduced-price meals are able to access reasonably healthy food. But 85 percent of these kids lose access to these meals during the summer. And the absence of structure during the summer -- particularly for kids not enrolled in summer programs -- is confusing. They don't know when to eat and tend to graze all day. So, no structure, no healthy food, no exercise, no intellectual stimuli, equals no progress. In fact, backsliding on all fronts.

The intervention is straightforward: Get kids into enriching summer programs. Studies show that engaging in only six weeks of summer learning activities can produce significant gains for kids. When I was a kid, summer meant summer school -- punishment, remedial, dreaded. But not anymore. Summer can and should be fun. Successful summer programs combine enriching and fun learning with physical activities -- moving minds and bodies.

Friday, June 20, is National Summer Learning Day when advocates, parents, teachers and students come together to acknowledge the importance of summer learning and protecting against the summer slide. There are hundreds of activities planned and likely, activities close to you.

Summer learning has been at the periphery of school and education reform. An intense and appropriate focus on the school year, time in the classroom and quality teaching has eclipsed the importance of summer. It's the equivalent of treating heart disease by focusing on exercise and eliminating smoking while ignoring the fact that the patient has no access to a low-fat healthy diet. Summer matters and should be moved to the center of the school reform discussion.

School may end in June but learning continues well beyond the classroom. By the end of summer, when low-income kids sit down to write their "what I did on my summer vacation" essay, they should have something to say.