First Lady Michelle Obama speaks at the National Summer Learning Day at the Department of Education in Washington, D.C. on June 20, 2014.  (AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEBSAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Sarah Pitcock is the CEO of the National Summer Association, which is dedicated to creating quality summer learning opportunities for young people, particularly low-income students who suffer more learning loss over the summer than other students. In this post Pitcock explains the problem of summer learning loss, and some solutions.


By  Sarah Pitcock

For 10 years, the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) has used today, Summer Learning Day, to draw attention to the need for and benefits of quality summer learning opportunities. Over those 10 years and the 21 since we began our work, awareness of the risks of a summer without learning opportunities – losses in math skills for all youth and loss of reading skills for low-income youth– has grown from barely acknowledged to widely recognized.

More than ever, in 2014 there is a broad understanding that summer learning loss is real and costly. The skills low-income students lose each summer are cumulative and contribute significantly to the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income kids, and the issue is far from being solved.

Despite awareness of what’s at stake, need still outpaces opportunity in communities across the country. According to the best data available, only about 20 percent of low-income youth participate in a summer learning opportunity, meaning at least 80 percent are falling farther behind in reading and math and missing critical opportunities to learn about college and careers each summer. In some cases, the issue is lack of program availability. A study NSLA recently conducted in Newark, New Jersey,found that citywide, there were only slots for 30 percent of the city’s youth in summer programs, an issue they are now addressing.  In other parts of the country great summer learning programs are under-enrolled and under-attended.

Our message simply isn’t reaching deeply enough into the homes of children who need summer learning the most. Research has shown that summer learning is a classic case of “when parents know better, they do better.” We must do more to engage parents.

Twenty-one years into the movement, we’re beyond establishing the issue, and answering the question of how to address gaps in skill building over summer – we know what kids need to be successful. The question that remains about “bridging the summer gap” isn’t about how to build skills, but instead how to provide equitable access, and ensure students from low income homes can access summer learning opportunities.

For years, NSLA has focused on comprehensive, enrollment-based summer learning opportunities as the only solution. More and more, we’re realizing we’ll never solve the problem if the only answer is getting every child in an eight-week summer learning program. Our cities simply can’t afford to do that for every child in need, and frankly, it’s not the right fit for every child and family.

We must get creative and transform settings that aren’t traditionally seen as educational into summer learning settings. We have to use technology and training to turn staff who might not be teachers into competent educators. We have to meet kids and families where they are, using libraries, parks, public housing complexes and schools as resource hubs to connect them to an increasingly diverse array of informal and formal learning opportunities.

Summer learning needs to live in all aspects of our communities in order to be successful. As a society, we need to value learning and development that happens out of school and recognize that half of the children in this country struggle without access to books, nutritious meals and adult mentors every summer. We need to recognize that advocating for summer learning is not taking away an affluent child’s idyllic summer, it’s trying to make just a few of those same experiences possible for all children.

Today is a great day for summer learning. In addition to hundreds of local events around the nation, national partners such as Boys and Girls Clubs of America, The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, the Y of the USA, Sylvan and United Way Worldwide are taking summer learning to new heights. You may see a commercial or a billboard or hear a radio ad reminding you about the importance of learning in the summer. You may even get a call from your mayor or superintendent telling you about summer learning opportunities in your community.

In the nation’s capital, we are celebrating with more than 100 incredible high school students at the U.S. Department of Education. These young people will participate in a high-quality program that puts them on the path to college, and today get to share their stories with one of their biggest fans, First Lady Michelle Obama, the latest national advocate to highlight the critical role that summer learning plays in college access and completion through her Reach Higher initiative.

More than 20 years into the movement, we’ve made tremendous progress in building awareness of the need for summer learning opportunities. Now is the time to take an honest look at what we’re doing about it, city by city, town by town, and student by student.