Most schools in the United States (and the world, for that matter) follow the traditional “agrarian” calendar, where classes begin somewhere around Labor Day and wrap up around Memorial Day. While there are lots of variations and different school calendars in use, the basic nine-month format which preserves a lengthy summer break has certainly stood the test of time.
But we do pay a price in terms of academic achievement for these long summer breaks. A notable study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University (Alexander, Entwisle and Olson, 2007) followed students from first grade through age 22. They found that children from low-income families made as much progress in reading during the academic year as middle and upper-income children did, but poorer children experienced a slide in reading results during the summer months. The researchers estimated that as much as two-thirds of the ninth grade reading achievement gap can be explained by access to summer learning opportunities during elementary school.
A more recent study by the RAND Corporation (McCombs et al., 2011) found a similar effect. In this study, the average student’s performance fell by the equivalent of a month’s learning during the summer, but the decline is far worse for kids in poverty. Of concern for all children, the “summer slide” effect is cumulative — it builds up to more than a year of lost learning by graduation.
We see this effect play out every August as students in our elementary schools begin the year with benchmark reading assessments. Our teachers always report some erosion of reading gains achieved from the previous year.
So, why do we hang on to the long summer break? Well, there is certainly something to be said for summer! Many of us treasure the time off for visiting family and taking trips when the probability of good weather for outdoor play is at its height. There are also many things we can’t measure with a reading test (fun, play, memories) that happen during the summer months, and these are not things most parents are keen on giving up. Also, I would be remiss not to mention an entire industry built on summer activities for kids in recreation, camps and fairs. All of these provide valuable experiences for children, and they are worthy of preserving.
So while the system is stacked against us and is likely to perpetuate the “summer slide,” there are things every family can do to make sure the learning keeps happening in the summer. Here are five big ideas for beating back the “summer slide:”
1. Choose activities based on learning opportunity. When considering an experiential summer program or camp, make sure it has a thoughtfully developed academic component with plenty of reading. This is not to say these opportunities can’t be fun — it is to say that fun and reading are not usually mutually exclusive!
2. Find creative ways to keep your child engaged in reading over the summer. Consider your child’s interests and find ways to connect them with reading materials that dive into those passions. Maybe your child is interested in riding horses, playing music, learning to fly, or even developing video games. Each of these presents an opportunity for further learning.
3. Make it easy for kids to read and learn. Buying books is one thing, but also consider library cards and the wealth of information on a variety of topics available on the Internet. As an exercise in critical thinking, help your kid learn to discern credible information and sources from junk — this is certainly an important skill they will need as adults!
4. Find the wealth of opportunities in our community. Here in Eagle County, organizations like the Vail Valley Foundation/Youth Foundation, Walking Mountains Science Center, the Ute Springs Experiential Learning Center, and SOS Outreach offer a slew of great, engaging learning options for children. There are many more great opportunities for kids than I have the space to mention. If finances are tight, then scholarships are likely available — our community supports its children like no other!
5. Be there for your child and other kids, too. Perhaps the biggest thing you can do, even if you aren’t a parent, is to be part of a kid’s life this summer. Reading, learning, exploring, questioning, researching and growing together happen during fishing, camping, biking and hiking. As the father of two children very young Eagle County children, I can attest to the fact that time flies by so very quickly with kids. So be there for them and with them, and be part of the magic of their childhood.
We can and should hang on to the wonders of summer, but make learning part of the equation as well.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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