As the school year begins and students file into the classroom, they chatter away about what they did over the summer. Some discuss sports camps and museum visits, while others discuss the latest video games and hanging around at home. As they settle into their desks, they look up to see their teacher poised at the front of the classroom, prepared to set the tone for the next 9 months.
Instead of diving into new material, the class begins with introductions and a review of coursework from the last year. Re-teaching old material does not last for just a day or even a week, but instead consumes the first 3-6 weeks of school, as found in a survey conducted by the National Summer Learning Association. This re-teaching detracts from valuable time that could be used to teach new material as well as advance through the curriculum. The long review period is meant to compensate for summer learning loss, or summer slide, which refers to the information from the past school year that students have forgotten over the 3-month summer break.
Just how big of a problem is summer slide? Research by RAND suggests that students lose one month of learning after the summer holidays. The NWEA breaks it up by grade and subject, finding that students entering 4th grade lose 20% of their school year gains in reading and 27% in math, and students entering 8th grade lose 36% of their school year gains in reading and 50% in math. Furthermore, a 2007 study by Johns Hopkins on the Baltimore City school system takes a closer look at equity, and finds that summer learning loss contributes to two-thirds of the achievement gap between 9th graders from higher and lower socioeconomic backgrounds. A Brookings Institute report confirms the occurrence of summer learning loss and its contribution to the gap in student achievement by socioeconomic background. To reduce the impact of summer learning loss on the achievement gap, we first have to understand why lower-income students are more at-risk for falling behind during the summer holidays.
What is causing summer slide?
The long summer holiday was designed decades ago, during a time when US economic, societal, and educational needs were different. Recently, some schools have begun shifting away from the traditional school calendar with a preference for adopting a year-round education model. In 2012, 3,700, or 4.1% of U.S. public schools, provided education year-round, a 20% increase in public schools since 2000. This shift has enabled researchers to organically examine the effects of shortened summers on student achievement.
There is no common consensus on the impact of shorter summers on student achievement, with some experts citing a lack of research or inconclusive results. A 2007 study on 22 North Carolina elementary and middle schools finds that year-round schooling has no impact on academic achievement, even when race is considered. An evaluation of several studies on year-round schooling by educational inequality expert Paul von Hippel at the University of Texas at Austin found similar results when looking at test scores. According to von Hippel:
“The differences you see between upper-middle class families and poor families aren’t differences that go away if you rearrange the school calendar. The summer provides a window into what those differences are like, but those differences exist every weekend. Whenever children are out of school, their environments are less equal.”
The bigger problem, as acknowledged by von Hippel, is how students spend their time outside of the classroom. In May, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) published a brief on how kindergarteners spent their summers in 2011 by socioeconomic group. The data shows that non-poor students are more likely to be read to every day, attend camps, and visit art galleries, museums, or historical sites with their families. This helps provide insight into determining why students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds not only experience less learning loss over the summer, but in some cases even demonstrate achievement gains as they re-enter school in September.
Low-cost solutions that work
Summer programs can mitigate summer learning loss and even lead to achievement gains. Although providing summer programs can be costly for school districts and parents alike, there are a range of low-cost and home-based options that have been proven to have a positive impact on student achievement.
Providing students with books at home is a cost-effective first step. One study found that supplying elementary school students from low-income families with self-selected books on the last day of school increased outcomes on the state reading assessment, especially among the most economically disadvantaged students. Two further studies examined the impact of mailing books to students on a bi-weekly basis throughout the summer. The first study found that mailing books to students with pre-reading and post-reading comprehensive activities – that were to be completed and mailed back – improved reading comprehension with a greater impact in high-poverty schools. Meanwhile, the second study, which mailed books to fourth grade students in a voluntary reading intervention program, found a positive impact on reading achievement that was largest for black students followed by Latino students, less fluent readers, and students owning fewer than 50 children’s books.
Reminders are also beneficial. The study that mailed pre-reading and post-reading comprehension activities along with books sent reminders to parents to have their children mail back the completed activities. An additional study on sending reminders was conducted by sending semi-weekly text messages throughout the summer. These text messages reminded parents to encourage summer reading and suggested literacy activities, leading to an improvement in scores on the reading comprehension test STAR, or Standardized Test for the Assessment of Reading, for third and fourth grade students.
Retaining student interest is important, and allowing students to choose what they read can heighten their curiosity and encourage them to read more. “They [students] need to have access to books, and then access to books they want to read,” said McGill-Franzen, a professor of reading education and the director of the Reading Center at the University of Tennessee, in an interview with Education Week. “When districts look at the cost and benefit of giving kids free books, they will be more likely to see that as an expenditure that they need to do.”
Bridging the achievement gap through summer programs and student supports
Independent of the type of calendar schools follow, education and support for students from low-income families should not be suspended during school holidays. In a blog post written this spring, Jessica Kannam, Policy Associate at AYPF, makes a call to action regarding the provision of summer learning programs for their academic and non-academic benefits alike, including access to skill development, safety, and food. For communities and families where high-cost programs are not yet feasible, introducing effective, low-cost solutions should be a priority to mitigate summer slide. The provision of continuous out-of-school time learning activities will get communities one-step closer to bridging the achievement and opportunity gaps that are magnified during school breaks.