The dog days of mid-summer are upon us and the usual stories are appearing about the chronic issue of Summer Learning Slide for students of all ages. Canadian education blogger Andrew Campbell recently aptly described it as “the annual hand wringing over Summer Learning Loss.” His analysis of the situation is deadly accurate: It’s something people complain about but little changes. The issue’s been around for over 30 years and along the way developed it’s own cottage industry with guidebooks, a national Summer Learning PD conference, and a well funded TD Bank Summer Reading Club.
Today’s parents are targeted with ads and articles warning them not to let their children ‘waste’ their summer. Many Canadian independent schools and some public schools get in on the act as they send students off with summer reading lists to prepare them for next year’s curriculum. For some reason, that’s where most public school educators draw the line. It’s as if the summer was sacrosanct and essentially a “no schoolwork zone.” Indeed, the whole summer is left to summer camp operators and enterprising educators who offer very stimulating private, for profit, study skills or learning discovery camps.
Much of the perennial public debate is consumed by promoters of Year Round Schools and never gets to the nub of the matter. If Year Round schooling is a non-starter, let’s focus on more achievable alternatives. Why not, for example, consider the merits of providing greatly improved, publicly-funded, guided summer study programs, sparking student engagement in reading, mathematics, science, and creative discovery.
Summer Learning Loss is real, not imagined, and it affects student academic performance. Simply put, it’s the loss of academic skills and knowledge over summer vacation. It’s measured by testing students in math and reading before they leave for summer vacation, retesting them after vacation and comparing the scores. A Fall 1996 literature review summarizing 39 studies found that, on average, students lose about a month of learning skills and knowledge each summer. By graduation an average student has lost about a year of progress due to Summer Learning Loss.
Students experience the most severe Learning Loss in cumulative subjects. Mathematics loss is greatest, with an equivalent of 2.6 months of math progress lost each summer or two and a half years by graduation. Loss in reading scores varies by socioeconomic status as students from low-income families lose about 2 months of reading progress each summer, while students from middle-income families actually gain. Over the years, the cumulative effect of the difference in summer experiences between low and middle-income families begins to have an impact. It becomes a is a major contributor to the widening achievement gap between students of different socioeconomic status.
Summer camp entrepreneurs have been very savvy in identifying the need and in incorporating summer learning programs into their range of program options. Affluent parents raising children to be “university bound” see the Summer Learning Loss as a challenge to be overcome and have the resources to minimize its impact on their children. It’s truly ironic that such families are more concerned than others about children are falling behind in their learning over those idle, zoned-out, electronic-game dominated summer months.
High cost summer camps or family excursions with edutainment value may not be what explains the difference between the learning retention of middle and lower income students. A recent study by McMaster University researcher Scott Davies reported that middle income students spend the summer with adults who read to them and use adult vocabulary in conversations. “It’s the daily conversations that are sophisticated and expand children’s vocabularies, and being read to regularly by seasoned readers, one-on-one. This informal role-modeling is available to affluent children seven days per week. Less advantaged children, in contrast, have less constant exposure to those quality resources.”
Guided summer study and reading programs can help to arrest and even reverse Summer Learning Loss. Dr. Davies led a pilot project that targeted struggling low-income readers in Ontario with summer literacy camps. These 2-3 week camps provided the exposure these students were previously missing and in response, rather than losing reading skills they improved by one and a half months.
Growing numbers of American educators are stepping into the breach and addressing Summer Learning Loss. California educator Larry Ferlazzo, for example, now provides summer courses online providing what amounts to a virtual summer school for his students. After watching his high school district summer school numbers drop from thousands to only four classes, he took steps to bridge the learning gap for his high school students. That’s being pro-active.
Given the mounting research on Summer Learning Loss, educational policy-makers would be well-advised to focus more of their attention on minimizing its impact upon student achievement. Provincial and state governments spend millions on school improvement initiatives, including professional development, standardized testing and the IT latest resources, all focused on closing the “achievement gap” over 10 months of the year. What if… some of those resources were invested in developing and offering summer study and reading programs, teacher-guided and online, to address the summertime loss of student knowledge and skills.
Why has the problem of Summer Learning Loss proven so difficult to address in public education systems? With the rise of virtual schools and online learning, why do the summer months remain essentially “dead zones” for school system extended learning initiatives? Given the resistance to Year Round Schools, why not put more of our energies and resources into providing more accessible publicly-funded guided summer study programs?