Sam Dillon’s piece this morning on local school systems cutting class time is worth highlighting. Everyone acknowledges that systems that, say, go from five-day school weeks to four-day weeks are probably going to see worse outcomes, but more benign-seeming changes, like longer summer breaks, could have an even greater impact:

For two decades, advocates have been working to modernize the nation’s traditional 180-day school calendar, saying that the languid summers evoked in “To Kill a Mockingbird” have a pernicious underside: each fall, many students — especially those who are poor — return to school having forgotten much of what they learned the previous year. The Obama administration picked up the mantra: at his 2009 confirmation hearing, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared, “Our school day is too short, our school week is too short, our school year is too short,” but its efforts in this realm have not been as successful as other initiatives.

The administration is pushing schools to shorten summer break and move to a year-long school year, but local budget crunches are overwhelming whatever good that’s doing. This is a prime example of losing the future. There is considerable evidence that different summer learning patterns between students of high and low socioeconomic status are responsible for much or even most of the achievement gap between the two groups. Kids from middle-class or affluent backgrounds have summer camps, classes and other activities that can maintain learning gains made during the school year, whereas poor kids tend not to have access to those kinds of programs. Even affluent kids not enrolled in formal programs are likelier to have parents who read to them, encourage them to read or otherwise keep them learning when school’s out.

There are number of ways we could tackle this. Longer school years are one option. There’s some evidence to suggest that offering summer school programs for disadvantaged students can prevent learning loss and stop the achievement gap from widening. Alan Krueger and Molly Fifer’s proposal for “Summer Opportunity Scholarships” offers a promising way of implementing programs like that nationally. But if nothing else, we should stop moving in the opposite direction.