Summer Learning, and Some Aren’t

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Karl L. AlexanderSummer Learning Day 2015 (June 19) launched with an inspiring message from the first lady: “Summer shouldn’t just be a vacation. Instead, it should be a time to get ahead, to branch out to acquire new skills, to have new experiences, like acting in a play and doing some outdoor learning. And for anyone who’s fallen behind, it’s a time to catch up on the lessons they missed … And of course, you’ve gotta read, read, read!”

Obama’s message is spot on, but summer isn’t just a time to get ahead, it is also a time to avoid falling back. The pattern known as “summer slide” burdens poor children throughout the country, and if we don’t push back against it, those burdens will shadow its victims all throughout their lives.

In research conducted in Baltimore with colleagues at Johns Hopkins, the gap in reading comprehension between low-income and middle-class children was a half-grade level in the fall of first grade. That’s bad enough, but it gets worse: By the end of fifth grade, which in most Baltimore schools is the end of elementary school, that half-grade-level gap exploded to three grade levels.

Surprisingly, we found the students generally kept up academically with their wealthier peers during the school year and only tended to fall behind each summer. Just before the transition to middle school, the typical poor child was reading at only a third- or fourth-grade level. That hardly augurs well, and predictable consequences followed: Poor children were much less likely to be in a college-bound program in high school, much more likely drop out of high school and much less likely to attend college.

Sure, have fun during the summer. We should want that for all our children. But poor children will pay a dear price later if those months are used just for fun. When learning foundational skills critical for success at school depends on the resources and enrichment experiences their parents are able to provide, these children do not move ahead. Rather, they languish, unlike the children whose parents have college degrees and the resources to provide the learning opportunities and enrichment experiences Mrs. Obama calls for in her message.

What is needed is an all-out attack on summer learning loss, one that affords poor children the opportunities available routinely to children of more advantaged background.

Let’s take Summer Learning Day 2015 as a clarion call. We know the message is getting out, as this year’s celebration smashed all records, with more than 700 events in communities throughout the country and commitments of expanded learning opportunities for this summer that will touch more than 725,000 children. It is an excellent start but just a down payment.

Nationally, demand outstrips supply, and cost is often a barrier. Quality, of course, is key. We need to expand access to high-quality summer learning opportunities so that needy children are able to keep up academically. This will require a sustained commitment, and the resources to deliver on it.

In order to ensure summer learning for all young people, the National Summer Learning Association recommends a community-level approach, starting with a shared vision and guided by a multiyear, community-wide summer learning action plan.

Community leaders should assess the local summer-learning landscape to identify existing summer investments and programs, and the gaps that need to be filled. Leaders and local funders are well-positioned to encourage and facilitate evaluations that assess the impact and quality of programs, and offer targeted training and professional development to impact specific youth outcomes. With a shared focus on intended outcomes, funders and leaders can work with providers to track the skills young people gain within programs and across the community.  These system-level efforts can lead to more efficient coordination between stakeholders, resulting in real impact.

So, let’s take the first lady’s call to action to heart and do the right thing by all our children, most especially those whose parents can’t do it on their own. And oh yes, let’s make those learning opportunities fun! Summertime isn’t just drudgery for middle-class children, and neither should it be for low-income children. The most successful learners are engaged learners, and the most successful summer learning opportunities will be those that inspire and engage children.

Karl L. Alexander, Ph.D., is research professor of sociology and academy professor at Johns Hopkins University, and a member of the board of directors of the National Summer Learning Association. Sarah Pitcock, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, contributed to this piece.