Journalists, Teach Thyselves

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“Summer learning loss” is the term coined more than a decade ago to highlight the impact of summer idleness on student achievement. Findings on the learning loss sparked the development of programs like STEP (Public/Private Venture’s Summer Training and Employment Program), designed to combine preventive doses of academics with employment, service, exploration or enrichment during the school break.

These programs were often run in conjunction with schools (which frequently referred students and facilitated year-long contacts), but schools were not in the lead. And there was a basic assumption that the goal was to infuse academics into high-quality employment and enrichment programs, not to forcefeed academically struggling youths with more of the same fare they received during the school year.

Fast forward to 2002: The academic standards movement has pressed schools to extend their efforts into the after-school and summer hours. It is no surprise that in many cities, the school-year tensions between schools and community-based organizations (CBOs) around the virtues of direct instruction vs. experiential learning continue into the summer. But in how many
cities are these disputes fueled by the media?

Two years ago, in response to the standards push, the Washington, D.C., public schools began to aggressively expand summer school programs and require summer school for more students. Big budget shortfalls have caused the system to reverse course. This year, the budget has been scaled back from $22 million to $6 million, cutting the number of students in summer school by more than half, eliminating the afternoon program, and returning the focus to students on the verge of failure.

The cuts are unfortunate. But I was pleased to see the mayor’s office step in to commit $6 million for community-based summer programs, separate from the school system’s summer programs.

The Washington Post’s editors, however, were not happy. In a flippant editorial (“A Back Seat for Summer School,” May 16), The Post summarily dismissed community-based enrichment programs as legitimate alternatives to formal summer school programs. “Don’t listen to what city leaders say about improving academic performance. … Watch what they do.”

I don’t have the specifics on the summer curricula planned by either the public schools or the Children and Youth Investment Trust, the 3-year old intermediary charged with creating the new community programs. So I can’t weigh in on which has the better chance of improving next year’s Stanford 9 scores. The verdict is out on whether the trust can pull off the expansion on such short notice. But this concern is not the focal point of the editors’ ire.

The editors go to the heart of the after-school debate, sarcastically suggesting that only “the mayor’s inner circle” knows how programs that focus on “arts, athletics, academics and community service” can “help children scoring far below basic levels on the Stanford 9.”

Actually, many people know. Milbrey McLaughlin at Stanford University has found that adolescents who participate regularly in these types of community-based programs have better academic and social outcomes, and higher educational and career aspirations.

“Community Programs to Promote Youth Development,” the landmark report recently released by the National Research Council and the National Institute of Medicine, catalogues dozens of effective programs.

No one would suggest that academically at-risk students are well-served by programs consisting only of running through playground sprinklers or playing pick-up basketball. The programs have to engage children in creative activities that build their skills and interest in reading, writing and math.

But I know of no – I repeat, no – research that suggests that school-run summer programs are inherently better than community-run enrichment programs. (Interestingly, neither the original Post article about the money for community-based programs nor the subsequent editorial offered data on whether the expanded summer school program had achieved significant results.)

The question isn’t where the programs are housed or whom the program hires (certified teachers students). The question is how the program is developed and how well it is run. Schools haven’t cornered the market on either of these fronts.

The concern here goes well beyond Washington. The assumption by the Post editors that city officials were playing election-year politics by directing limited resources to CBOs – which, for the same dollars, could serve twice as many youth for twice as many hours – shows just how far we have to go to convince journalists and policy-makers that there is a science to what community-based youth development programs do.

Karen Pittman serves on Youth Today’s board of directors and is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment. To link to this column and related readings, go to