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Active Summer, Active Minds
Educators Seek Ways to Prevent Learning Losses During Vacation

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 15, 2009

It's called "the summer brain drain" because during those long, hot months away from school, kids supposedly forget a lot of what they had learned in class.

Research, however, tells a more nuanced story: Some learning is lost among some groups, and others gain.

Here's what experts from Johns Hopkins University, the University of Tennessee, the University of Virginia and elsewhere say happens over the summer:

-- Most students -- regardless of family income or background -- lose 2 to 2 1/2 months of the math computational skills that they learned during the school year.

-- Students from low-income homes lose two to three months in reading skills learned in the previous school year.

-- Middle-class students make slight gains in reading achievement as measured on standardized tests.

Those findings suggest the obvious: that children lose math ability when they don't use it and that middle-class students read more than those from poor families because they have more books at home. (The research looked at middle-class kids, but similar results would presumably be found in children from high-income families.)

It might seem as if students who lose two months of math skills need two months more to catch up. But educators say it's not that simple.

When it comes to reading, experts say, some kids make progress not only because they read more.

"Life experiences other than reading can lead to advantages in reading comprehension," said Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at U-Va. who is an expert in cognition and the application of cognitive principles to K-12 education.

"If you don't have a reading problem or a problem with decoding . . . your ability to read a passage is dependent on having some relevant background knowledge," he said.

Such knowledge is related to the wide variety of summer experiences for many middle-class and affluent kids -- in camp, on vacation, in their own homes. The lack of resources for poor children in the summer has big consequences, experts say.

"If we can eliminate the summer gap, we can close the longstanding achievement gap between richer and poorer kids," said Richard Allington, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee and past president of the International Reading Association. "Basically, even poor kids grow reading skills at about the same rate as middle-class kids, when they are in school." he said. "Two-thirds of the achievement gap occurs during the summers, not during the school year."

Schools, libraries and nonprofit organizations also tend to place more emphasis on summer reading than on mathematics, which explains in part why kids across the socioeconomic spectrum lose ground in math over the summer, said Ron Fairchild, executive director of the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins.

Another factor in the loss of math skills is thought to be the nature of the subject: Facts and knowledge based on specific procedures are easier to forget than concepts. But Willingham said it is also true that the nature of human memory means that students can re-learn relatively quickly.

"Someone who loses 2 1/2 months of skills doesn't need 2 1/2 months to relearn it," he said.

Fairchild's center promotes quality summer programs for children, especially those who are less affluent. The center works with 5,000 programs in all 50 states, aiming to provide academic and cultural enrichment, healthy meals and physical activity -- elements to help students succeed when they return to school. Healthy meals are not an afterthought. Research shows that most children gain weight in the summer, an undesired outcome amid increased childhood obesity.

So for those parents who tell themselves that kids don't need to do anything academic during summer because, after all, they didn't themselves when they were young, and they turned out just fine, experts have this reply: Think again.

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