As I was visiting a school in Delaware last month, an elementary school principal ushered me over to his computer to show me a graph that distressed him. It traced how one of his students, who came from a poor family, had progressed over the course of two years.
A test taken in September of the previous school year was a low point. Then, the student’s achievement level leapt upward in remarkable increments, to a high point in the spring. But by the next fall, the student’s achievement level had sunk again, back toward the point where he had started the previous year.
The principal named the culprit: Summer.
Much of the discussion about the wide discrepancies in educational achievement between poor and affluent students is focused on what schools and teachers should be doing to close it. But researchers are gathering more evidence suggesting that summer—when students are typically out of contact with their schools and teachers—is one of the root causes of the gap.
At the Education Writers Association annual conference last week, a panel of researchers and educators, moderated by Education Week’s assistant managing editor-online, Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, discussed how summer affects student learning, and what to do about it.
“When kids return to school in the fall, on average they’ve slipped by about a month from where they were in the spring,” said Catherine Augustine, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research group, and co-author of a report released last year on summer learning programs. But, she added, the averages mask significant differences between poor children’s summer learning loss compared to that of their wealthier peers.
More advantaged children tend to stay at the same achievement level, or even make gains, over the course of the summer, Augustine said: “They’re reading, they’re being read to, they’re going to fancy camps.”
In contrast, poor children fall far behind. “Low-income kids are less likely to be going to those camps,” she said. “They’re more likely to be playing video games, watching TV, and staying indoors, particularly if they live in unsafe neighborhoods.”
She added that the discrepancies between the two groups are perpetuated summer after summer, helping to increase the achievement gap as children grow older. (She also noted, however, that both low-income and high-income children lose ground in math over the summer during the elementary school years.)
The panelists did not necessarily recommend year-round school, however. Many parents dislike the idea, and there is still little research on whether cutting out summer vacation entirely actually helps shrink the achievement gap.
Instead, schools and community groups should work together to create programs that are both fun and educational, said Gary Huggins, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. Rather than being “remedial and punitive,” he suggested school districts create programs that low-income students actually want to attend.
“It’s not just about more school,” Huggins said. “Programs have to be engaging and innovative.”
Ideally, he suggested, summer school might become a laboratory for experimental strategies—like hands-on activities, field trips, theme-based curricula and Socratic teaching methods—that schools can also incorporate into the regular academic year.
Kathryn LeRoy, who oversees the extended summer learning program for the Duval County Public Schools in Florida, said her district is already doing some of that experimentation. Using federal funds, the Duval district, which encompasses Jacksonville, expanded and renamed its summer school program “The Superintendent’s Academy.” Administrators then conducted walks through local public housing projects to recruit low-income families. The program, which targets struggling students, now includes music, dance, physical education, field trips and partnerships with local camps, not just reading and math classes, LeRoy said.
So far, the schools with students involved in the program have seen remarkable gains, she added, going from Ds and Fs on their state report card to As and Bs. “Our gut tells us that summer absolutely had a part to play in the achievement we’re seeing in in those elementary schools,” she said.