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Ensuring Summer Isn’t a

Vacation From Learning



Say the words “summer” and “children” and the mind conjures up idyllic days devoted to fun and discovery — mastering a curveball, memorizing the lines for a play in the park, figuring out how to construct a tree house.

What rarely comes to mind is the reality in American cities. For millions of disadvantaged urban youngsters, June, July and August don’t mean hours of creative exploration. They mean television, video game playing or some other form of stagnation. There’s a name for what results — summer learning loss.

Years of education research have documented that the long summer hiatus from the classroom eats into children’s academic gains from the previous year. But while almost all students experience some summer slide, the problem is particularly severe for low-income students.

Even worse, what schools do for low-income kids is rarely enough to make up for the differences in summer learning losses. Summer loss accumulates year after year and “contributes to a substantial portion of the achievement gap,” according to a 2011 RAND Corp. report, “Making Summer Count,” commissioned by The Wallace Foundation.

Replacing Losses
Although the problem is clear, a solution that works on a wide scale to help many city children is not. The RAND report notes that research from a dozen studies suggests it is possible to mitigate summer slide through smart summertime programs. Features of promising efforts include small group sizes, engaging activities, strong instruction, sufficient duration (five to six weeks over the summer) and, crucially, strong attendance.

With this in mind, Wallace last year launched a $50-million initiative to see whether large school districts could successfully operate high-quality programs that replace summer learning loss with lasting learning gains, particularly for our least advantaged students. This summer marks the program’s second year with six participating districts — Boston, Cincinnati, Dallas, Duval County (Jacksonville, Fla.), Pittsburgh and Rochester, N.Y. The efforts vary in approach, but typically they offer children academic fare during the morning and enrichment, ranging from nature study to dance, later in the day. Some programs feature field trips or a big project such as a theatrical performance. One offers the occasional pizza or ice cream party.

Wallace chose the six in part because the superintendents and other district leaders already had launched programs to fight summer learning loss. The Wallace initiative seeks to help strengthen this programming, but it has another purpose, too. If all goes according to plan, Wallace-funded researchers in 2013 will begin rigorously assessing the programs’ academic impact. We hope to find out how big a difference they can make in staving off summer learning loss.

To be clear, we’re not talking about traditional summer school, meant primarily to provide remediation to students who struggle during the academic year. The Wallace-supported programs aim to reverse the slide that occurs during summer. What we’ve learned so far is that introducing such programming on a large scale is no easy undertaking. A forthcoming RAND report looking at the first-year experiences of the Wallace-supported districts finds the 2011 programs had a number of strengths — including instruction that provides both fun and rigorous learning experiences — but also faced a number of challenges.

Creatively Financed
One of the biggest lessons is that administrators must plan programming in detail far ahead of the summer kickoff. This requires answering a lot of questions: What curriculum will be used? How will qualified teachers be recruited, trained and managed? Will a community group provide enrichment and, if so, how will its efforts be coordinated with the classroom? Will bus transportation be offered?

Then there is money. Although summer education is cheaper than its September-to-June counterpart — roughly two-thirds the cost per day of instruction, according to RAND — districts hardly are flush with cash these days. It’s not clear how big a bite the lingering weak economy is taking out of summer learning programming, especially now that federal stimulus dollars are drying up.

Last summer in California, most of the largest school districts enrolled “only a fraction” of the number of students from previous years in summer programs, according to EdSource, which conducts research in that state. A handful of districts expanded summer programming by creatively using public funding or getting private support.

Whatever the uncertainties, it’s clear that all children deserve summers that enrich them and keep them from falling behind. We think it’s worth finding out whether urban school districts can help transform what’s now too often a time of decline into a time of fired imagination.

Will Miller is president of The Wallace Foundation in New York, N.Y. E-mail: wmiller@wallacefoundation.org


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