Fighting summer learning loss

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Now that school’s out, it’s about that time where families take a much-needed break from the everyday hustle and bustle of routine life. And it’s not just parents that are off the hook from their everyday schedules — between packing the kids and shuttling them about to their school and extracurricular activities. Kids are taking time off from the rigors of school, too.

However, that’s exactly the reason education authorities are saying it’s the most crucial time to take into account a phenomenon called “summer learning loss” — especially its impact on low-income students that later manifests into what’s called an “academic achievement gap.” That gap is ever-widening at a disproportionate rate, Johns Hopkins University officials say.

It’s precisely that gap that summer learning programs tackle. Developed for students with wide-ranging interests and needs, summer learning programs can have varying names, such as “summer activities” and “summer camp.”

“I would much rather see kids being active and involved in activities that are going to create productive little citizens than knowing they are just at home watching TV all day,” said Austin Independent School District Pre-K teacher Nina Ortega. “It doesn’t have to be a super fancy program — just an organized group where kids come together to enjoy company and learn characteristics that will make them healthy adults.”

Examples of summer camps can include anything from outdoor adventure camps, arts and music camps, sports camps, summer reading programs, high school transition programs, college preparatory programs, apprenticeships and even paid internship programs. They can also range from several days to a two-week overnight camp — and in some cases, a summer-long day camp. Officials say it’s typical for summer learning programs to last about six weeks at schools, places of worship, cultural centers and youth-focused nonprofit organizations.

“Kids lose what they have learned over summer when they are not being active and actively involved in brain-enriching activities,” said Ortega. “As a teacher, when I return to school, I feel completely exhausted the first month just getting into the swing of things. So you can imagine the kids — because we have them jump right into their learning.”

The Wallace Foundation, however, points out that summer learning programs do differ from summer school in various ways.

Although there is a growing movement to transform summer schools into learning environments that offer more engaging and enriching learning experiences for students, summer school typically has characteristics that solely include academic instruction. Summer school characteristics include being focused on remediation and review, attended by low-performing students, frequently mandatory, and happening over a half-day.

On the other hand, summer learning programs are more likely to engage students in recreational and enrichment activities, as well as activities focused on building positive relationships with peers and adults; blend remediation with enrichment activities and more advanced curricula;  be attended by students of varied skill levels; be voluntary; and happen over a full day.

Battling ‘summer learning loss’

Summer brain-drain can be countered with camps and engaging activities that keep the mind working during those crucial, off-school months.

The American Camp Association estimates that more than 11 million youth attend camp each year. Enrollment in camps has been steadily increasing over the past five years, with 65- to 77 percent of camp directors reporting the same or better enrollment each year.

While these numbers are encouraging, the ACA says there are also some discouraging trends:

  • Children and youth from higher-income families are more likely to participate. One study estimates that only 4 percent of youth from the lowest-income bracket participate in summer camps, as compared to 18 percent of the highest-income youth. Tutoring programs and summer school are the exception; these programs include disproportionate numbers of low-income and minority youth.
  • Parents cite summer as the most difficult time to ensure their children have productive things to do.
  • Kids spend more hours per week in self-care over the summer than during the school year — 10.3 vs. 4.8 hours per week.

However, the RAND Corporation says not all students experience “average” losses and that summer learning loss disproportionately affects low-income students. Low-income students lose substantial ground in reading during the summer, while their higher-income peers often gain. Most disturbing, RAND officials say, is that it appears that summer learning loss is cumulative and that, over time, these periods of differential learning rates between low-income and higher-income students contribute substantially to the achievement gap in reading.

The Wallace Foundation reviewed 43 summer learning programs and the literature surrounding summer learning programs — identifying three critical characteristics it believes are effective and promising summer learning programs for disadvantaged youth.

  1. They are affordable and accessible. Programs generally offered their activities free of cost. 
  2. Most were offered over a full day or approximately six- to eight hours, providing a free source of child care for families.
  3. Programs that involve parents in the community  — for example, as volunteers or as decision-makers — may be more likely to have positive impacts on children

RAND says rigorous studies have shown that strong summer programs can achieve several important goals:

  • reverse summer learning loss
  • achieve learning gains
  • give low-performing students the chance to master material that they did not learn during the previous school year

Without ongoing opportunities to learn and practice essential skills, kids fall behind on measures of academic achievement over the summer months, according to the Education Commission of the States. Research dating back 100 years confirms the phenomenon often referred to as “summer slide” — where most children lose about two months of grade-level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer months. More importantly, however, low-income youth also lose more than two months in reading achievement, despite the fact that their middle-class peers make slight gains. This disparity has grave consequences for disadvantaged young people, says Education Commission of the States.

“I do stress the importance of staying active in the summer,” said Diana Sanchez, a PE teacher at charter school Harmony Science Academy. “We discuss fun activities that they can do, instead of spending hours in front of a TV — like swimming, biking, even helping with cleaning around the house. And even as a PE teacher, I always stress how important it is to read over the summer.”

It’s that necesary activity that’s gotten the attention of some big-name supporters. Just this February, tennis superstar Andy Roddick used his fame to speak to lawmakers off the court on behalf of the Andy Roddick Foundation. He spoke about the importance of putting state money into after-school and summer programs for kids.

“I’m just a big believer in it,” said Roddick when we visited KXAN. “I think you lose so much time during the three months off during summer and you kind of play catch-up, you know. If you didn’t do your job for three months, it would take you a little bit to get back into it. It’s no different than kids in education.”

Roddick spoke about a program called Expanded Learning Opportunities. ELO helps 900,000 students statewide and needs a funding increase to help an additional 1.5 million Texas children. In its 15th year, the Foundation’s already raised close to $20 million.

“Reading, writing and math are skills — not just facts that can be learned and then filed away. Just like playing tennis, you have to work regularly to improve, and the more time you spend on any one skill, the better you will get,” said Stephanie Buckly, instructional coach for math and science with the Pflugerville Independent School District. “Although I believe that summer can provide kids opportunities to learn important skills outside of the classroom, it’s true that many of their families do not have the financial resources to pay for summer camps/programs. So projects like Roddick’s become an invaluable opportunity.”

Roddick says that ultimately, kids want to learn, and studies show that population is only growing.

“Our nation has never had as many students or as diverse a student population in its schools as it does now,” says the KDK Harman Foundation, which is a private family foundation whose mission is to break the cycle of poverty through education while promoting a culture of giving excellence. “Texas has the fastest-growing child population in the country, and Central Texas child population is growing at twice the state rate.”

Common findings across numerous studies make it clear that students need to engage in summer learning and activities not to lose ground. As it turns out, some of those activities include ones that many families are already doing — such as summer family trips, time at libraries and museums, a summer reading list for their children, and enrolling their kids in various enriching summer camps.

More than just filling the time during summer months, E3 Alliance officials say they are proven strategies to help students retain their skills and knowledge base and continue to learn during crucial years of schooling. It’s important to point out, however, that these activities require investment of time and/or money and may not be easily available to many families.

“For all children, it is critical to keep learning going all year long,” School Readiness Director for Austin-based E3 Alliance Laura Koenig put into perspective. “Without exposure to enriching and engaging activities, children head back to school in the fall catching up — instead of moving forward. It especially impacts our low-income population because families have less disposable income for camps, museums or vacations. Children don’t have access to the types of activities that would boost learning and support optimum development. Our hope is that our region can support learning year round for all students.”

Low-income children impacted most

The Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Summer Learning says elementary schools and youth development organizations should form partnerships to prevent summer loss in reading among low-income students.

Research conducted by Johns Hopkins sociology Professor Karl Alexander and his colleagues shows that low-income youth suffer significantly from a loss of academic skills over the summertime. And the losses pile up, contributing to an achievement gap that can make the difference between whether students set out on a path for college or decide to drop out of high school.

According to the National Summer Learning Association “most students lose about two months of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer months. Low-income students also lose more than two months in reading achievement, despite the fact that their middle-class peers make slight gains.”

The large majority of these students are low-income and Latino. In fact, the low-income student population is growing at twice the rate of overall Central Texas student population, according to the Texas Education Agency.

Summer learning and the academic achievement gap

“It may seem counterintuitive, but schools don’t seem to produce much of the disparity in test scores between high- and low-income students,” said Sean Reardon in the “New York Times” in April 2013. “There is some evidence that achievement gaps between high- and low-income students actually narrow during the nine-month school year, but they widen again in the summer months.”

During the summer months, young people living in poverty often don’t have access to essential resources that support their academic performance and healthy development, according to the Education Commission of the States. As a result, they experience well-documented setbacks in academic skills that contribute to growth in the achievement gap.

Since 1906, there have been 39 empirical studies that have found significant evidence of a pattern of summer learning loss, particularly for low-income youth. Together, these studies offer a compelling reason to focus education resources on providing summer opportunities in high-poverty communities.

In part, the “faucet theory” can help explain what’s happening, as well as how the opportunity gap plays a role.

Faucet theory

  • Learning resources are turned on for all youth during the school year because of equal access to public education.

After-school and summer

  • During the summer, the faucet is turned off for low-income youth.
  • A limited flow of resources in the summer has major implications for summer program quality.

What is the opportunity gap?

  • Over the last 40 years, upper-income parents have increased the amount they spend on their kids’ enrichment activities, like tutoring and extra curriculars, by $5,300 a year.
  • Lower-income parents have only been able to increase their investment by $480, adjusted for inflation.

Identifying the issue and possible solution

As suggested by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Summer Learning

The problem

  • All young people experience learning losses when they do not engage in educational activities during the summer.
  • On average, students lose approximately 2.6 months of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer months.
  • Low-income children and youth experience greater summer learning losses than their higher income peers.
  • Summer learning loss contributes to the achievement gap in reading performance between lower and higher income children and youth.
  • Large numbers of students who qualify for federally subsidized meals do not have the same level of access to nutritious meals during the summer as they do during the school year
  • Studies show that out-of-school time is a dangerous time for unsupervised children and teens

Steps to take

  • All young people should have consistent access to high-quality summer enrichment programs throughout their educational careers.
  • Elementary schools and youth development organizations should form partnerships to prevent summer loss in reading among low-income students.
  • Teachers and youth development professionals should use the summers to collaborate and bridge gaps between schools and youth programs
  • Program models should maintain a strong academic focus, but also acknowledge the unique role that summers play within American culture.
  • Summer programs should be used to support the recruitment, professional development, and retention of teachers and youth program staff.
  • Summer learning should be a communitywide, interagency priority.

Some stats

  • One study estimates that only 4 percent of youth from the lowest-income bracket participate in summer camps, as compared to 18 percent of the highest-income youth, according to Education Commission of the States and the Beginning School Study launched in 1982.
  • Better-off and disadvantaged youth make similar achievement gains during the school year; but during the summer, disadvantaged youth fall significantly behind in reading.
  • By the end of fifth grade, disadvantaged youth are nearly three grade equivalents behind their more affluent peers in reading.
  • Two-thirds of the ninth-grade reading achievement gap can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities during the elementary school years; nearly one-third of the gap is already present when children begin school.
  • Early summer learning losses have later life consequences, including high school curriculum placement, whether kids drop out of high school and whether they attend college.

Learn more about summer learning research

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