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Summer Losses, Summer Gains

June 03, 2014 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

We have again reached the time of year when summer break is on the horizon. Some Minnesota schools will be ending classes this week, others next week, and a few will press on deeper into June. Just because a student isn’t school, though, doesn’t mean educational inequity goes on pause for three months. In fact, it gets worse.

If a student spends the summer largely unstimulated, it shouldn’t be a big surprise when some of their more recently acquired skills atrophy. When it gets really bad, students can backslide by roughly two “months’” worth of skills, as assessed at the end of one school year and the beginning of the next. While some of this may simply be disenchantment with the testing mechanism, many teachers find that it takes some time to regain ground that students lost over the summer.

This isn’t true for all students, of course. Some maintain or even grow their skill levels. Summer is an opportunity to stimulate the brain in many different ways, through summer camps, enrichment programs, self-study, and reading for pleasure, just to name a few. Students who take advantage of these opportunities often return to school in the fall ready to pick up where they left off.

The difference between summer losses and summer gains is a major contributing factor to our educational equity gaps. The gaps grow much faster during summer than they do during the school year. As the RAND Corporation has found, a large share (perhaps as high as two-thirds) of the testing gap between higher income and lower income students can be attributed to the cumulative effect of summer learning differences. The researchers went so far as to say, “It may be that efforts to close the achievement gap during the school year alone will be unsuccessful.”

Some have suggested simply lengthening the school year to address this problem. That would be one option, but it faces significant challenges. For starters, it would be expensive for the state and districts. Additionally, it would provoke opposition from those employers who rely on students for inexpensive work during the summer months. Especially because this is an equity of opportunity problem, we can be more targeted in addressing the issue.

Some districts have already deployed summer programs that go beyond the traditional “summer school” stereotype of remediation and credit recovery. The Minneapolis Public Schools run the Fast Track scholars program for targeted 8th graders. The American Indian Magnet School in the Saint Paul Public Schools lists a partnership for 4-day TeenVenture summer camp options for 6th through 8th graders. The Brooklyn Center Public Schools offer the six-week LEAP summer camp program for students entering 6th through 9th grades. These are just a few examples from the metro area, and there are many more statewide.

Thinking bigger, a systemic effort to create high-quality summer learning opportunities, offered for free to students who would benefit most from the enrichment (and who are less likely to have other avenues to those options) has significant potential. Rather than a broad-brush lengthening of the school year, we could target funds to districts and schools to develop strong programs. When appropriate, it would be good to bring in other partners serving the same communities to co-create great educational opportunities.

In any case, we would do well to expand our definition of “summer school” to include a wider range of enrichment programs, allow for greater creativity in instruction, and support students starting long before high school.

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  • Chris Porter says:

    June 9, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    One of the most acclaimed out-of-school-time programs in the Twin Cities area is Breakthrough Twin Cities. This program works with underserved students during the summer and school year starting before they start 7th grade - and supports them through college entrance. Students are taught by energetic older students who ignite the joy of learning in their classes.  The data on the success of Breakthrough students is astonishing.  Instead of losing ground over the summer, they start school in the fall ahead of their peers.  Truly, they break through the economic and social obstacles that hold them back and transform their own and their families’ futures.  Check Breakthrough Twin Cities out on its website.