The Learning Curve: Staving Off the Dreaded 'Summer Slide'

Education

The Learning Curve: Staving Off the Dreaded 'Summer Slide'

Research, as well as anecdotes from teachers, support the idea that students backpedal a bit during the months they’re not in school.

For San Diego Unified students, Spring Break is coming to a close. If you’re a parent, this week might have had you scrambling to figure out who would watch your kids or cart them around.

It’s a little sneak peak of summer vacation, which brings its own round of stressors. Sure, you’re no longer locked into the daily grind of drop-offs, picks-ups, shuttle-me-around to this practice or that, but the question remains: What are your kids actually going to do?

Learning Curve-01Clearly, you don’t want your kids running through the streets, throwing eggs at cars, tipping over the neighbors’ trash cans or just wasting time. Which might be disappointing news for kids. When I was young, I assumed this was the exact point of summer.

It turns out that all that unstructured time might have an impact on learning.

Question: Studies have shown – and teachers have felt – that summer vacation creates the biggest learning achievement gap between low-income students and middle- or upper-income students. They call it “the summer slide.” What do local school officials say about this problem? How do they propose to reduce the learning gap due to the “summer slide”? I think many parents will be more than happy to trade off a longer school year for a better education, especially those in the lower-income classes. – Mike Z., interested resident

Thanks for the question, Mike. You’re correct, research, as well as anecdotes from teachers, support the idea that students backpedal a bit during the months they’re not in school.

The Johns Hopkins School of Education says many students lose about two months of grade-level math skills over the summer. But losses are more pronounced for low-income students; they lose more than two months in reading achievement, while their middle-class peers make slight gains.

Researchers chalk some of this up to the fact that middle- and upper-class kids have better access to camps or summer enrichment activities. Some of it could also come down to access to books.

While there’s some debate about just how much summer vacation sets kids back, the slide was enough of a concern for San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten that she volunteered her summer break leading a reading program for kids in Poway (and no, not every kid in Poway comes from money).

Before Marten became superintendent, and before she was principal at Central Elementary, she was a reading specialist in Poway Unified.

When students returned from summer break, Marten recalls, they often scored lower on reading tests than they had the previous spring. (Teachers assess reading level by listening for miscues when students are reading, or checking for comprehension after they’re finished).

So Marten was able to pull together a grant to help fund a summer reading program (and really, is there anyone better at making these things happen than Marten?). A lot of low-income students who went to her school lived in a nearby apartment complex, she said, and she was able to use a vacant apartment as space for the program. She gave kids $100 gift cards to Barnes & Noble, loaded them up in her car, and headed to the store so they could pick out the books they’d read together that summer.

“My goal was to make it cool to read,” Marten said. It’s hard to quantify gains on this type of effort, but one thing Marten knows: Those kids got excited to read.

Now, as superintendent, replicating something similar on a district-wide scale is a much more formidable challenge. Formal summer school is offered, but that’s mostly for kids who need remediation.

Year-round school, which the district is currently considering, could also be a way of breaking up long summers. A lot of parents in San Diego Unified aren’t crazy about that idea; it would move the first day of school before Labor Day and mess up vacation plans, parents say.

Besides, Marten said, even though year-round school is sometimes pitched as a way to combat the summer slide, in reality it’s often more of strategy to deal with overcrowded schools. You can put students on a staggered schedule, and more students can attend the same school because they don’t all attend at the same time.

And really, when we’re talking about summer enrichment opportunities, we’re talking about things kids do in addition to what they learn in the traditional classroom.

That could look like the five-week program at Chollas-Mead Elementary, in Chollas View, where students are in a classroom part of the day, then get outside for hands-on science lessons. They play in the dirt! There’s also a physical fitness component. It’s turned out some good results, too. Parents whose kids have participated, love it. Almost all of them said their kids were more motivated to read at the end of summer.

Marten said she’d like to see these kinds of programs proliferate. The district doesn’t have the resources to fund them on a larger scale, but Marten said principals can initiate these less formal programs at their schools.

Ed Reads of the Week

Why School Officials Forced a Special Needs Teenager to Remove His Varsity Jacket (Washington Post)

Yeah. That happened.

The City That Believed in Desegregation (The Atlantic)

It’s easy to say we value diverse schools. But actually making that happen is tricky.

Put simply, schools and housing are connected. Affluent pockets of cities tend to be whiter than their inner cores. So those who can afford it, move to more affluent neighborhoods. Schools in those areas tend have better programs, more resources and attract more experienced teachers. And so it goes in every major city in America, including San Diego.

For years San Diego tried to break up some of the homogeneity by busing low-income students to schools in more affluent parts of town. But in recent years it’s cut the busing budget. And the driving force behind its plan to put a quality school in every neighborhood is to keep kids in schools close to where they live. The underlying question, of course, is whether this plan could actually segregate schools even more.

Louisville, Ky. – of all places – does things differently. It buses. Heavily. Unlike San Diego, or even more segregated cities like Detroit, Louisville’s school district doesn’t just include the city proper. Theirs is a city-county merger; they see the district through a more regional lens. City blocks are sorted by things like percentage of minority residents, educational attainment of adults and household income. Then the students are bused to schools in order to strike a good mix.

Parents protested back in 1975 when a judge ordered the integration plan (he also received death threats), but now a lot of folks reportedly dig the diversity.

Of course, the system also brings its share of headaches. Parents might not want their kids forced to take an hour bus ride across town if the school in their neighborhood is plenty attractive. But Kentucky’s experience might offer some interesting insights for other cities facing the same issue.

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