For many American students, the words “summer break” immediately conjure up images of camping trips, pool parties, and snow cones. But for students who are struggling academically or seeking to get ahead in school, summer sometimes just means more textbooks and lectures.

As research has emerged about summer learning loss (also known as “summer brain drain” or the “summer slide”), parents, teachers, and even state legislatures are increasingly turning towards summer school. But is summer school always the right solution?

The Truth about Summer Learning Loss

Studies show that across the board, students decrease in academic achievement levels during the summer. Although this does vary based on factors like socioeconomics and ethnicity, it still rings true for students with extra privileges.

According to Washington, D.C.-based research group The Brookings Institution, students’ scores decline by one month of school-year learning during summer break on average. Interestingly, the extent of learning loss is greater for higher grade levels.

With the threat of summer learning loss looming, parents might enroll struggling students in summer school to help them keep up with their grade level. Still, more parents might encourage stronger students to enroll and maintain their good grades and high test scores.

But is the sacrifice of irreplaceable childhood play worth the benefits of summer school?

The Origins of Summer Vacation

Traditionally, summer break is portrayed as an agrarian tool. Media personnel and educational policymakers indicate that historic rural communities suspended school because they needed children at home to work long hours on the farm.

But historian Kenneth Gold asserts that the opposite is true. In actuality, farming families needed extra help during spring planting and fall harvest. Students from rural communities typically had more opportunities for learning during the summer months.

Urban families, on the other hand, often left the city to escape sweltering heat during summer in the pre-air conditioning era. Therefore, schools would close for the summer.

At the end of the 19th century, reformers wanted a standardized schedule for both rural and urban schools. Schools nationwide compromised on the school calendar system that still exists today.

When Summer School is Necessary

While there are definite pros and cons to summer school, there are a few situations where it is necessary for academic success. These situations include:

Students at risk for retention.

If a student is performing below grade-level standards, sometimes they will be “held back” to repeat a school year in the same grade. Summer school programs can help students to raise their test scores and master subjects more thoroughly to avoid this situation.

Seniors finishing their diplomas.

If a senior student fails a course during high school, he will have to complete the class again before he can receive his diploma. Summer school allows seniors to walk on stage with their classmates and still finish the school year before the next fall term.

Summer School Alternatives

If you want your student to avoid the summer slide without sacrificing all of his or her freedom, there are alternatives to summer school. For students who are only struggling in one particular subject area, and especially for strong students who simply want to excel, these alternatives present a more balanced summer lifestyle.

Private tutors, standardized test prep courses, summer learning camps, and summer reading programs can all benefit your student. But according to Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, the best place for students to learn during the summer is at home.

A study by education policy researcher Kathleen Lynch showed that home-based learning activities were the most important factor to continued student success. When parents were reading, writing, and practicing math skills with their kids, it made the biggest impact on their start to the following school year.