Can Summer Learning Programs Help Close the Achievement Gap?

Experts say summer programs that focus on enrichment instead of just remedial skills may make a difference when students come back to class this fall.

Spearheaded by the city of Chicago and the MacArthur Foundation, the Chicago Summer of Learning initiative is bringing together 146 organizations to offer students a pretty mind-boggling array of programs and activities. Like Pittsburgh’s Hive Days of Summer, it aims to make Chicago a place where learning doesn’t take a break over the summer. Instead, it’s more creative and stronger than ever.

At Chicago’s STEAM Studio, kids got to design their own jewelry with the help of a professional jewelry designer. Which would be cool enough by itself, but then they printed their designs using a 3D printer.

Since the beginning of July, youth at the University of Chicago’s Game Changer Design Lab have been playing “The Source,” a STEM-based alternate reality game. One part of the game involved students cracking codes and puzzles to simulate halting the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

The Digital Youth Network’s Webmaker program is teaching the basics of web design. It guides students through making their own site about Chicago. Kids and teens have volunteered at the zoo, made films about underwater creatures, and grown herbs. The list goes on and on.

More than keeping busy with hands-on learning, Chicago’s Summer of Learning is incorporating another experimental tool that lets kids document what they pick up—Mozilla’s Open Badges. The virtual badges are issued by organizations and collected by participants to show colleges or even future employers eclectic skills.

The badges may give students a way to show what they’ve learned, but the summer programs play another, larger, role as well. These programs help combat the dreaded “summer slide.” Experts estimate students lose up about two months of material taught during the year if learning is put on hold over the summer.

But this loss doesn’t impact everyone evenly. Children from low-income families are more likely be affected by summer learning loss and to feel those effects long-term. While middle- and low-income kids make similar strides during the year, during the summer, middle-income kids continue to gain while lower-income kids lose ground. Part of the gap is due to lower-income kids having less access to books and technology at home, but life experiences play an important role as well. Some kids may be fortunate enough to head to summer camp, travel, or take fun classes, but lower-income kids are less likely to have those resources, exacerbating the achievement gap once school is back in session.

“Life experiences other than reading can lead to advantages in reading comprehension,” said Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and an expert in cognition in the Washington Post.

An article about Chicago Summer of Learning over at the Catalyst further explains why the stakes are so high for providing summer learning opportunities for students from all income levels.

“For lower-income students, equity is an issue that stretches beyond technology. Poorer students often don’t get much academic enrichment during the summer break and, experts estimate, can lose two to three months of learning in reading over a summer,” Peggy Espada, director of professional development for the National Summer Learning Association, told the Catalyst.

Espada said instead of the traditional model, where kids who don’t do well get sent to summer classes to focus on academics, summer learning should focus on enrichment. “Summer learning should be about fun,” she said, “with a lot of hands-on, project-based activities.”

Pittsburgh’s NPR station did a story that exemplifies this kind of summer learning. It highlighted a group of teenage boys who learned to finger knit through Allegheny Youth Development, an organization that works with at-risk boys. The boys explain how knitting works as a stress reliever for them, and how they’re looking forward to their work being installed on the Andy Warhol Bridge as part of the Knit the Bridge yarn-bombing project. (The Knit the Bridge installation went up last weekend.)

Knitting probably wouldn’t have found its way into the packed school curriculum. But it’s the kind of skill programs like Chicago Summer Learning and Hive Days of Summer are hoping to impart as they rethink summer learning. It turns out the three, vast open months provide invaluable time for the activities that can’t be squeezed into the school year.

Published August 19, 2013