About summer learning loss…

April 3, 2013 Editorial Staff
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Joshua Gunsberger is Center Director at FasTracKids.

Summer vacation is a magical time of year for children. It’s a two month break from their often micromanaged existence, from waking up early, sitting in hot classrooms, all the academic stress… Blissful freedom, but at what price?

In the 1800’s, schools operated on two loosely defined calendars: a rural calendar or an urban calendar. Rural school was divided into summer and winter terms, so kids could pitch in with the spring planting and fall harvest seasons. Urban students, however, could be in school for as many as 48 weeks a year, where instructors did not consider student engagement and motivation a top priority.

Education wasn’t always as closely monitored as it is now, and attendance was often perfunctory at best. It wasn’t until the 1840’s that educational reformers made moves to merge the two calendars out of concern that rural schooling was insufficient and urban schooling too overstimulating for young minds, as well as the observation that the sweltering summers promoted the spreading of disease.

The modern U.S. school year averages 180 days, September to June. Summer vacation critics claim that this 8-10 week break after June is the reason why the US falls so low in world education rankings (although many other developed nations have a similar calendar) and contributes to the majority of learning loss between academic years. Summer vacation supporters, however, acknowledge the opportunity for other enrichment opportunities and believe summer vacation to be an American tradition.

While summer learning loss is real, it’s not as clearly defined as educational reactionists and overly concerned parents may lead you to believe. Unfortunately, learning loss seems to be directly related to students’ socioeconomic status. Low income students are affected disproportionately, so much so that a large part of the achievement gap can be explained by class-based differences in summer activities. Giving students access to self-selected texts over the summer and taking cultural trips can allow a child to make slight gains in reading level and ability.

The greatest loss that occurs over the entire population of students is in factual and procedural knowledge, such as math computation and spelling skills. Is summer learning loss inescapable? To an extent, but is it tragic? No. There are many ways to enrich summer learning loss beyond traditional academic instruction. Instead of cramming children’s heads with information or procedural instruction, it’s important to enhance their critical thinking skills, to allow them to explore mathematical principles instead of performing endless calculations, to learn how to write strong narratives that elicit reader responses, and to spend time in science labs.

School budgets are being reduced more and more so the possibility of widespread NYC summer enrichment programs (besides mandatory summer school) are unlikely. It’s time to make a decision: what will you do with your child this summer?

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