Michelle Rhee (© Max Whittaker / Reuters/REUTERS)

As they do for many people across the country, the warm days of July bring me back to those magical early days of summer vacation. The opportunity for fun and adventure always seemed endless, and the coming school year felt a lifetime away. After months of structure and learning, it was a welcome break to spend days outside riding bikes and exploring the world.

But one thing that sapped my enthusiasm was the dreaded summer reading list.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved school, and I loved learning, but the required books my teachers assigned rarely grabbed my attention. The books on their lists always felt like a tedious chore.

Summer reading lists were at least partially a response to research indicating that students generally lose at least a month of learning every summer; for students from economically disadvantaged environments, the results were even worse. Today, we know that children who don’t read over the summer can lose up to three months of reading progress each year and that kids from low-income families who don’t read every summer can lose up to four years of reading skills, cumulatively, by the end of high school.

Looking back now, I understand how important it was to stay connected to learning. Like many other students, I regressed over the break, and had the summer reading list been more engaging, I might have found more value in it and started the school year a bit stronger. I found it difficult to connect with the plot of books like “Anne of Green Gables,” and struggling to make it through the pages seemed to turn me off from reading rather than building a passion for learning that I could carry on with me into the coming school year.

The potential of summer reading assignments to boost student outcomes is promising when it’s done right — but doing it right isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Fortunately, a lot of today’s schools are starting to change their model, and it is helping to keep students engaged and learning in a way that works for them.

One recent study published by Richard Allington and his colleagues demonstrated that allowing low-income students to select their own books “produced as much or more reading growth as attending summer school.” And students in the very lowest income group experienced twice the reading growth they would have by attending summer school.

As a former teacher in inner-city Baltimore, I know that not all kids have access to books over the summer. Many educators would also agree that every student is unique, which makes it essential that young people have options and can choose books that keep them engaged. It’s important that schools, districts and community organizations work to give teachers the support they need in implementing successful summer reading programs that provide these choices.

In some places, this is already happening. For example, the nonprofit literary organization Reading Is Fundamental has created “Books for Ownership,” which distributes free books to disadvantaged students. Lots of public libraries also have summer reading programs — like the D.C. Public Library’s Teen Summer Reading program (which, notably, offers not only access to books but also the chance for one lucky participant to throw a pie at a library staff member).

I’ve seen the importance of summer reading as a teacher and a school district leader, but even more so, I’ve learned what it can do firsthand. As a mom of two teenage girls, I see my kids constantly plugged into technology — their phones, their iPads and the computer. Summer reading is a great chance for them to take some initiative, choose a book that’s meaningful to them and unplug for a few hours. And I’ve noticed that as they’ve had more choice in their summer reading assignments, my girls have become more invested in completing those assignments. I’ve watched as their love for reading has grown, and they’ve become stronger readers than I ever was at their age.

In this Internet era, there’s still something powerful about opening up a physical book — slowing down and taking the time to think, reflect and learn, without the constant need to respond to a text or check your e-mail. And the ability to do that doesn’t come naturally
when you’re immersed in this fast-paced, technology-driven culture of ours. That’s why, even beyond its power to fuel academic achievement for our kids, reading is something incredibly valuable that we can share with the next generation, and summer reading is a great tool to help us do that. So let them choose!

Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, is the founder of StudentsFirst, a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that every child in America has access to great teachers and great schools.