Summer: The Missing Link in Education Reform

By Gary Huggins, Chief Executive Officer, National Summer Learning Association

Research has long documented the phenomenon of summer learning loss. Over the three-month summer vacation, children forget some of what they have learned during the previous school year. It’s an unfortunate, unintended consequence of the ideal of a lazy, fun-filled summer.

Most youth lose about two months in grade equivalents in math computational skills over the summer. Low-income youth lose more than two months in reading achievement while their middle-income peers make slight gains.

Worse, these losses are cumulative, contributing to a widening achievement gap. A study by Johns Hopkins University’s Karl Alexander found that summer learning loss in the elementary school years results in low-income students being as much as 2.5 years behind their higher-income peers by the end of 5th grade. It also leads to placement in less rigorous high school courses, higher high school dropout rates, and lower college attendance. Further, when students lose hard-won skills over the summer, teachers waste time re-teaching at the beginning of every school year.

The learning losses, and the wasted time, are preventable.

There is evidence that students who attend high-quality summer programs can avoid summer losses, but what makes a high-quality program? Not surprisingly, such programs offer strong, individualized instruction, have parents who are involved, and feature small class sizes and engaging activities, according to the RAND Corporation’s 2011 report Making Summer Count: How Summer Programs Can Boost Children’s Learning. They’re typically full-day programs that run from five to six weeks.

There are examples of successful summer learning programs in school districts and communities throughout the country. These high-quality programs effectively blend academics and enrichment activities to help students avoid learning losses, and even experience gains. These have nothing in common with the punitive summer schools I recall from my childhood. Rather, this new vision for summer school has kids reading in the morning and visiting museums in the afternoon. Math lessons are followed by art and music – subjects often squeezed out of the strained school day.

Outcomes are impressive. As part of the Smarter Summers initiative the National Summer Learning Association launched in 10 cities last year with support from the Walmart Foundation, middle school students attending Summer Advantage USA in Chicago and Indianapolis gained an average of 2.1 months in grade equivalents in literacy and math skills.

In Oakland, Calif., more than half of 1,000 elementary students who attended a summer program were found by the district to be performing at or above the benchmark in English/language arts scores after the program, compared with 36 percent in the spring. In Baltimore’s expanded summer learning program, elementary school students registered double-digit percentage-point gains in language arts and math tests from spring to fall 2010. Recently, Baltimore City Schools CEO Andres Alonso said that summer school is no longer just for children who are failing, but an important part of his strategy for helping all students to succeed.

Research is now underway on wide scale implementation and on sustained gains. The reality is that if we ever hope to close the persistent academic achievement gap, districts need to consider summer learning as part of their school improvement strategies. Summer school shouldn’t be seen as punitive, and shouldn’t be the first sacrifice in a tight budget year. It’s a link in the chain that’s been broken for far too long.

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