Why Do Low-Income Kids Suffer So Much Summer Learning Loss?

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Horizons student

Photo courtesy of Horizons

Horizons student Kameron Johnson discusses an assignment with his teacher.

Horizons student Kameron Johnson discusses an assignment with his teacher.

Photo courtesy of Horizons

Call it summer learning loss, summer slide or brain drain.

The loss of critical reading and math skills among children during the summer months is particularly pronounced among low-income kids, who lose an average of two to three months of academic achievement in reading and math each summer.

Research cited by Horizons National, a nonprofit with 38 affiliate summer learning programs serving 3,500 students nationwide in 2014, shows that all young people experience learning losses when they don’t have engaging educational activities during the summer, but low-income kids lose more than their more affluent peers. For instance, low-income kids are an average of six months behind their peers in kindergarten, and low-income students lose more than two months in reading achievement — while their middle-class peers make slight gains.

Moreover, the cumulative gap grows to an average of 2½ years by fifth grade and 3.4 years by ninth grade, according to research from the Baltimore-based nonprofit National Summer Learning Association.

Karl Alexander, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and his colleagues tracked 300 low- and middle-income Baltimore City public school students for 25 years beginning in 1982 and found that by ninth grade, two-thirds of the achievement gap between the two income groups could be attributed to summer learning loss during their elementary school years. Alexander says the Baltimore results reflect national trends.

Additional research shows being behind in high school results in higher likelihood of dropping out, needing remedial help and loss of post-graduate opportunities.

Low- and middle-income students mostly kept pace during the school year, but the low-income students lost ground during the summer.

So what accounts for this achievement gap?

Many of the low-income Baltimore parents involved in Alexander’s study never finished high school and thus struggled to help their children grow academically in the summer.

The homes of middle-class children normally have books, and the parents set an example by reading. Low-income children, by contrast, often do not have books in their homes and are less likely to see their parents reading.

Middle-class children also typically enjoy enrichment experiences in the summer, like visiting cultural and historical sites, attending summer camps, taking music lessons and going on family vacations. Poor children often lack these sorts of experiences, contributing to the achievement gap, Alexander says.

Highly regarded summer learning programs such as Horizons are designed to help prevent summer learning loss and close the achievement gap by ensuring poorer kids get learning and culturally enriching experiences similar to those of middle-class students.

That approach has proved remarkably successful for the nonprofit based in Westport, Conn.: The program has not only erased the summer slide for its participants nationwide, but students gain an average of two to three months in math achievement during each six-week session, Horizon officials say.

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