Kids once came back from summer camp with a T-shirt, a potholder and poison ivy. Now, children go to camps that teach them French cooking, filmmaking and fencing.
As a result, these sophisticated campers return to school this month academically enriched from their summer experiences. That’s not the case for less affluent classmates, who head back to classes impoverished after a summer of few opportunities and little enrichment.
“There is no season of the year when resources are more inequitable, where the time is far from idyllic for kids. There is really a dearth of opportunities for kids in this country in the summer months. Most public institutions geared for kids shut down in the summer,” said Ron Fairchild, former CEO of the National Summer Learning Association and an opportunity gap panelist last week at the National Council of State Legislatures meeting in Atlanta.
For low-income kids, public institutions that feed their intellectual growth — schools, after-school programs, community centers — are not replaced during the summer months by private opportunities, marine biology camp at Tybee Island or fly fishing with dad in Wyoming, leading to a loss of skills.
More attention is being paid to this “summer slide.” The assumption has always been that while students lose academic ground in the summer, they regain it once school resumes. But a Johns Hopkins University study found that disadvantaged children keep sliding. In fact, two-thirds of the ninth-grade academic achievement gap can be explained by the differences in youngsters’ summer experiences in elementary school.
The study found that although low-income children begin school with lower achievement scores than middle-class classmates, they progress at about the same rate. But summer break widens the gap. In simple terms, the longer low-income children are away from school, the more they fall behind.
“The research clearly shows that summer vacation contributes to the achievement gap,” said Jennifer Sloan McCombs, a RAND senior policy researcher and co-author of “Getting to Work on Summer Learning.”
In a conference call last week, McCombs and fellow RAND researcher and study co-author Catherine Augustine discussed their five-year demonstration project, funded by the Wallace Foundation, examining whether and how summer learning programs can stop summer learning loss and create achievement gains. Among their recommendations thus far: Offer academics and enrichment, so math and kayaking are on the daily schedule. Plan early. Recruit strong staff. Consider commercially available and tested curriculum.
“When we observed districts attempting to develop their own curricula, we haven’t seen it pulled off well,” said Augustine. “They don’t have the spare staff, time or resources. Photocopies are being made until midnight they day before.”
“The key is to start early,” said McCombs. “Many of the problems districts face — from weak teacher training to ineffective transportation — can be traced to insufficient planning.”
“These programs are often an afterthought or not offered at all, particularly when education budgets are tight. This research provides districts with guidance on how to create summer learning programs that could offer real benefits to struggling students,” said Augustine.
When nearly two-thirds of Georgia’s districts have cut instructional days, can we expect school chiefs to create new summer programs rather than lower class sizes or end furloughs?
The researchers said the next phase of their study — examining the effects of summer programs on student achievement — will enable school districts to compare cost effectiveness.
“Superintendents have to make some really hard choices,” said McCombs. “Our study will eventually provide real data that superintendents can use when making those decisions.”