Blog: The Educated Reporter

Summer Learning: No Vacation From Opportunity Gap

Students pay dearly for a long summer break from school: On average, they return in the fall a month behind where they were at the close of the prior academic year, and kids from low-income households typically slip even further.  

Now a new report suggests that when it comes to summer enrichment programs, the opportunities that might help slow that academic slide for struggling students are out of reach for many families.

Among the spotlighted early findings from the Afterschool Alliance’s forthcoming America After 3pm report, which was drawn from a survey of nearly 14,000 households nationally:

  • The percentage of families with at least one child participating in a summer learning program was 33 percent, up from 25 percent in 2009;
  • Just over half of respondents said they wanted their kids to experience summer learning, and that more than eight in 10 said they supported public funding for such opportunities;
  • And while 13 percent of respondents said their children attended summer learning programs free of charge, those who did pay fees said it cost an average of  $250 – “placing it out of reach for many families,” according to the report.

So why does summer learning loss matter? Researchers contend that how students spend their time during the long break should be part of any conversation about overall school improvement. Consider this: One long-term study found that students learn at about the same rate during the course of the traditional 180-day academic year, regardless of their socioeconomic status.  The achievement gap has been found to narrow between fall and spring, and then widens again over the summer. (For more on academic calendars and why year-round schooling isn’t necessarily the best option for many districts or students, check out Education Week’s recent piece on a new Congressional Research Service report.) 

As Stanford education Professor Sean Reardon posited in his opinion piece for the New York Times last year, “it may seem counterintuitive, but schools don’t seem to produce much of the disparity in test scores between high- and low-income students. … The more we do to ensure that all children have similar cognitively stimulating early childhood experiences, the less we will have to worry about failing schools.”

An often-cited study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that that two-thirds of the achievement gap between rich and poor ninth graders could be attributed to inequities in access to summer opportunities. Wealthier students were more likely to read books, participate in field trips, and take part in organized sports.  “Overall, they had a more expansive realm of experiences,” said Johns Hopkins sociology professor Karl Alexander, one of the study’s lead authors, in a research brief on the project. Need more reasons to take summer learning seriously? Of the students who were tracked from first through 12th grade in the long-range study, 40 percent failed to earn diplomas. “It’s a problem of monumental proportions,” Alexander said.

In an EWA webinar with reporters on Wednesday to discuss these issues, Sarah Pitcock, chief executive of the National Summer Learning Association, called the slowdown in learning during the summer “the faucet theory.”

During the traditional academic year, schools provide an open faucet of resources and services for all students, Pitcock said. But when summer break arrives, “for low-income kids that faucet is shut off when their school is not open,” Pitcock said. Suddenly there’s a dearth of age-appropriate books to read, the free and low-cost cafeteria meals many kids rely on, adult mentors to turn to, and even safe places to go outside and play. Middle class and more affluent families, however, continue to provide these basic needs and enrichment opportunities to their children outside of the school setting because they’re likelier to have the resources.

While there’s growing agreement that summer learning loss needs to be addressed, what a robust program looks like is less clear. As NPR recently reported, there’s little consensus on what a “good” summer learning program looks like, and states aren’t keeping records on student achievement during those months.

“It’s been one of my pet peeves for years,” Kathy Christie, vice president of knowledge and information management at the nonprofit Education Commission of the States, told NPR. “There’s just been so little attention paid to what effect that this extra three, four, five, six weeks make.”

The Wallace Foundation (an EWA funder) and RAND Corp. have teamed up on a five-year demonstration project of summer learning programs to try and identify the hallmarks of those that produce meaningful gains for students. A 2013 report detailed some of the early lessons gleaned from challenges faced by six school districts participating in the project, each offering full-day summer learning programs that run between five and six weeks. Among those lessons: Start planning early in the year, make sure the teachers are well trained, and provide a convenient transportation option for parents. If necessary, it’s better to limit student enrollment in a program rather than dilute the quality – and the eventual impact – by trying to serve too many kids, the RAND report concluded. (For more from RAND and Wallace, check out the Summer Slide report from 2011.)

For school districts, it’s not enough to build support for summer programs –securing the resources is vital, too. To that end, many cash-strapped districts are turning to public-private partnerships because public dollars are scarce, which raise a host of new questions about expectations and accountability.  

Summer learning can mean different things for different students, says Chris Smith, executive director of Boston After School & Beyond, a nonprofit that helps facilitate enrichment programs. While one program might opt to use its resources to promote arts and leadership development, across town another one is focusing on teaching students about environmental conservation. Students are encouraged to seek out what interests them, and often learn in an environment that’s significantly different from their bricks-and-mortar school experience. 

But while teachers in the programs might have more freedom to try out new instructional techniques, it’s essential to still have clear expectations and accountability measures in place, Smith told the EWA webinar audience. The Boston Summer Learning Project— part of the Wallace Foundation’s pilot study—tracks not just the academic achievement of students in its summer programs, but also their social-emotional development.

“All of these programs are rigorous enough to count for academic credit, but they’re engaging enough to attract kids and their families voluntarily,” Smith said.

So what’s next? The AfterSchool Alliance’s full report on the supply and demand for enrichment opportunities will be out this fall. And the Wallace Foundation will have its first analysis of the multi-city pilot program in December.  Those findings could go a long way toward helping educators identify what works best for students, and how to make sure more of them have access to high-quality summer enrichment opportunities.

Bonus read: EWA’s Michael Zinshteyn on how After-School Advocates Hope Research Leads to More Federal Dollars.


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