Is summer learning loss real?

Not a year goes by that we don’t hear about how students — especially those from low-income families — suffer sometimes significant learning loss during the summer and that this loss fuels the achievement gap. Research studies have supported the notion, and many in the education world take it for granted that summer learning loss is real — and a real problem.

Some in the field, however, are questioning the premise. Paul T. von Hippel, for example, is doing just that in a new piece in Harvard University’s EducationNext journal. An associate professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, von Hippel says that he once was a “big believer” in summer learning loss but is no longer. He wrote in part:

I’m no longer sure that the average child loses months of skills each year, and I doubt that summer learning loss contributes much to the achievement gap in ninth grade.
Several things happened to challenge my faith. One is that my colleagues and I tried to replicate some of the classic results in the summer learning literature—and failed. Sure, the patterns were present on one test—the one used in the best-known study of summer learning. But that study is 30 years old, and we couldn’t replicate its results using modern exams. And it turned out that the test from that study had problems, which had been debated long ago and then, over time, forgotten.
Then I looked more closely at the research on early learning. Early-childhood scholars believe that nearly all of the gaps between children’s skills form before the age of five, or even before the age of three. According to their research, the gaps that we observe in ninth grade were already present, and almost the same size, as they were when those children started kindergarten. Where does summer learning loss fit into that picture?
And of course there is no shortage of researchers who will tell you that achievement gaps are largely the fault of schools. Schools serving poor communities are inferior, these scholars argue, and even when poor children attend schools in middle-class communities, they are shunted into lower achievement groups and curricular tracks, which impede their intellectual growth while wealthier peers surge ahead. If school is the source of achievement gaps, where does that leave summer holidays?

Below is a piece looking at the same subject by Kelly Chandler-Olcott.

A former high school English and social studies teacher, she is now a professor at Syracuse University who teaches English methods and content to students majoring in education. She has published five books and more than 60 chapters and articles, including in publications such as Reading Research Quarterly and Journal of Literacy Research. She is also co-editor of Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.

This first appeared on the Conversation website, which gave me permission to republish it.

By Kelly Chandler-Olcott

When the end of the school year arrives, Internet articles and morning talk shows sound the annual alarm about preventing summer learning loss. They advise parents to purchase hot new reads for their children, take them to museums, and sign them up for science camp.

As a literacy educator for the past 27 years — and the parent of two teenagers — I’ve tried many of these recommendations myself. (Ask my son about the library reading programs I signed him up for, and wait for the groan.) I understand why such tips are appealing. Who doesn’t want young people to spend their summers more productively than sleeping and playing Fortnite? But it’s high time we question the assumptions baked into our thinking about the so-called “summer slide.”

Let me tell you why.

The summer slide is real, but …

It’s hard to blame parents for anxiety about summer loss given a century’s worth of research that shows young people can lose up to several months’ worth of school-year learning over summer break. Studies also show older students have greater gaps than younger students, and summer loss is greatest for low-income students. These findings are worrisome.

At the same time, it’s important to recognize that concerns about summer loss are grounded in an idea that learning is linear and that students’ gains or losses are best measured by performance on achievement tests. Any gaps these tests reveal need to be considered with caution.

The loss-prevention recommendations themselves also reflect some problematic biases. Parents and caregivers from all walks of life find ways to support their children’s growth and development. But many ideas suggested for stemming summer setback assume an audience with disposable income, employment flexibility and English fluency that not all families have.

For example, tracing shadows every two hours from breakfast to dinner is easier for a parent with the means to stay home than a working parent. Suggesting that families who can’t afford summer camps create their own using online resources ignores variation in parental education, literacy levels and technology access. Such disregard of social class differences is particularly concerning since many summer-loss articles are thinly veiled advertisements for commercial products and programs.

Also troubling is the assumption that families, not educators, should promote learning in specialized areas such as mathematics, reading and science. Although families from all walks of life promote varied kinds of learning in everyday life, most parents lack preparation to address academic subjects, and their year-round obligations don’t end just because school is out for their offspring.

Summer gains for all

Given these complexities, I believe that solutions to the summer slide should not fall predominantly on students and their families. Instead, schools must step up to design summer-learning supports responsive to community needs. These might be home-based initiatives, such as the one created by Richard Allington and colleagues, where students’ selection and ownership of 12 free books yielded small but significant gains in reading, particularly for students from the least-advantaged families.

Reading over the summer yields academic gains

Schools might also offer no- or low-cost programs on site that combine interest-driven academics with a mix of enrichment activities such as dance, drama, or meditation. Summer school can be much more than the retaking of failed courses.

Research suggests parents would take advantage of these programs if they were offered. The National Summer Learning Association found that 51 percent of families not participating in a summer program would do so if one were available. Cost is often a factor. For instance, the association found that of families that pay for summer programming, the average cost was $288 per week per child.

I have seen first-hand what can happen when summer is viewed as a time to test innovations that promote learning for all, teachers and students alike, rather than an opportunity to “fix” some children stereotyped as deficient.

For four years, I served as director of a summer writing institute meant to ease middle schoolers’ transition to high school. The three-week program was free, open to all students slated to attend a local high school in the fall, and drew its staff from volunteers committed to continuous professional improvement. Students pursued individual and collaborative projects in both print and digital forms. Guest authors from the community spoke about how and why they write. Teachers worked together to construct plans responsive to students’ varying needs.

My research within the institute suggests that students valued interacting with peers from diverse backgrounds and abilities around topics of interest. It also suggests that families valued a high-quality learning experience for their children that didn’t duplicate the school curriculum, take the whole summer or require extra effort from them. Teachers valued collaborating with peers to design a strengths-based writing program tailored to the local community.

To be sure, programs like the writing institute require considerably more time and money than sending home a one-page menu of suggestions for families. But if such programs engage students without stigmatizing them and help teachers refine their craft, that investment could be well worth it.