Just How Damaging Is Summer Learning Loss?

If we want to begin to stem the learning gap between low and high-income kids, start by offering affordable, accessible, and fun summer programs—and nix the flash cards.

Summer—that idyllic time of pick-up games of baseball and ice cream cones on the front porch. Ha! Summer these days is jam-packed for most kids, with sports schedules, Maker weekends, museum visits, and constructive, guided learning. This exposure is a deliberate strategy on the part of parents to keep their kids busy and stem the dreaded “summer slide”—the learning backslide that happens in the summer months.

Yet not all children are heading to museums and camp. Many families simply can’t afford to send their kids to these events, or their schedules don’t coincide with work, or there is no transportation to get to and fro.

In fact, the famous “summer brain drain” is not universal. Low-income and disadvantaged children are more likely to suffer from the summer slide. And it is that loss that might in fact be responsible for the growing “performance gap” among higher and lower income children.

Researchers in Baltimore found that, during the first five years of schooling, low-income children actually saw greater gains in reading than high-income children. But lower-income students fell behind each summer during the study while the more affluent children continued to gain ground in school. As a result, over time the performance gap widened.

Pittsburgh-based researcher Catherine Augustine, who works with the RAND Corporation, agrees. “The main problem,” she told WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR affiliate, “is that low income students lose ground, on average, on reading and literacy-related skills over the summer whereas, on average, middle and higher income students maintain where they were in the spring or even gain ground over the summer.

University of Pittsburgh child psychologist Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal also finds that students from higher-income areas are having more enriching summer experiences than youth from lower-income areas. But there are other factors at play as well.

“High exposure to traffic, to noise, to violence, to things in their everyday environment— lead exposure—it’s that stuff,” said Votruba-Drzal. “But it’s also access to stimulating and engaging conversations with other kids and with adults that are important, especially in the early years, for things like language skill development.”

Ironically, the impulse in many school districts is to keep kids in school longer rather than focus on summer and out-of-school opportunities to bolster the learning. “Rather than increasing school time,” write John Falk and Lynn Dierking in Scientific American, “perhaps we should be investing in expanding quality, out-of-school experiences for disadvantaged children.”

Creating richer out-of-school experiences was one of the goals for Pittsburgh’s Summer Dreamers Academy, a no-cost summer learning camp and one of five school district-run programs in the US that was selected for an ambitious RAND study. The program combines elements of traditional classroom instruction with outdoor activities and other opportunities for “relatively unstructured engagement” with teachers and peers. They’re building social and emotional skills through team work, options to choose activities and set personal goals—skills that are important to a strong foundation for learning.

Votruba-Drzal said that programs like Pittsburgh’s are ideal because they limit the risk of burnout.

“If you just continue through the summer [in school], …you end up killing engagement and motivation,” said Votruba-Drzal. “So you may be improving test scores, but down the road you may be really shooting yourself in the foot with respect to keeping kids loving school and loving learning.”

She also explained that the media hype around the “brain drain” concept has been blown a bit out of proportion. Ironically, the parents who tend to be most distressed about, say, enforcing daily flash card drills, are likely to have the least to worry about. “From that standpoint, the extent to which it engenders anxiety in these parents is kind of ridiculous,” Votruba-Drzal said.

While, hopefully more programs like Pittsburgh’s Summer Dreamers Academy will soon pop up in other cities across the country, Votruba-Drzal said parents and educators should keep the bigger picture in mind. “I think it’s important with summer setback to have the broader context of what’s happening in our country right now with respect to socioeconomic disparities and kids’ development and their long term life chances,” she said. “It really should be alarming to people.”

Published July 17, 2013