Amid the excitement that accompanies a new school year comes a sobering reality. Children returning to the classrooms — particularly those from low-income families — will have lost ground academically since they left for summer vacation.
Research conducted by RAND Education and the Wallace Foundation shows that the average student loses one month of learning time over the summer, and disadvantaged students regress twice as much. The biggest slide comes in reading, and these losses accumulate over time. By ninth grade, two-thirds of the overall class-based achievement gap in reading is attributable to what happens — or doesn’t happen — over the summer. The study found similar, but less severe, regression in math.
For students already fighting the odds, idle time over the summer increases the chance they will not complete high school, attend college, or prepare themselves for the workforce.
Summer slide is not acceptable or inevitable. The RAND-Wallace report offers a roadmap that state policymakers should use to combat the problem.
Traditional summer school, focused on remediation and designed for students who failed one or more classes during the school year, isn’t enough. What’s needed is a summer program that essentially extends the school year and includes learning that is different from the regular school year, parental involvement and small class sizes mixed with recreational programs that make the experience “fun enough.”
Several urban school systems are beginning to embrace this learning model. Pittsburgh offered a full-day program this summer; Baltimore and Chicago also made summer school more meaningful. In Boston, BPS expanded its traditional summer programming to include specific opportunities for students learning English and many more physical activities. The Boston Renaissance Charter Public School offered a 35-day summer program that combined math and science instruction with recreational activities.
Academy of the Pacific Rim overhauled its summer program this year to include 27.5 hours of literacy instruction combined with numeracy and enrichment programs for a total 105 hours. On Fridays, students went on field trips to places like Harvard’s Museum of Natural History and Worcester’s Eco Tarium.
The program was timed to come in the middle of the summer, providing short breaks before and after summer school. The 46 students who participated had failed courses during the school year; all have chronic academic struggles, placing them at long-term risk of not graduating from high school. Eighty-six percent of the attendees qualified for free or reduced-price lunch.
Program attendance was more than 90 percent and parents reported that nearly two-thirds of the students would otherwise have been sitting at home. Every parent surveyed was happy their child took part in the program.
To determine the program’s impact, we will assess the participants this month and follow them throughout the year. We intend to share these results.
Enhancing summer school programs costs money — the Academy’s was one-third more expensive than its former remedial summer program. But, the RAND-Wallace study recommends partnering with community-based organizations and identified more than 100 funding sources to support summer learning. APR used various grants to cover the additional cost of its new program.
For the past 20 years, Massachusetts has invested tens of billions of dollars in public education to implement numerous reforms — much of it geared toward closing race-and-income-based achievement gaps. The summer slide erodes the impact of that investment.
Increased funding for academic-based summer school programs should go hand-in-hand with recent investments the state has made to lengthen the school day. The RAND study showed that the summer slide is part of a larger issue of short school days and a 180-day school year. The conventional school calendar is not sufficient to provide students with the education they deserve, and idle summer breaks amplify the problem.
The Patrick administration and the Legislature have provided tens of millions of dollars over the past few years to encourage local school districts to lengthen their school days. Charter public schools have been providing longer school days since their inception almost 20 years ago, and have shown that it is an essential ingredient in academic success. But, if struggling students continue to lose two months of learning time as a result of idle summer vacations, the impact of that extended learning time will be lessened.
This time of year, educators face one decidedly unpleasant question: How long will it take for students to perform at last June’s academic level? With the data now available to provide answers to that question, it’s time for state leaders to include addressing the summer slide as part of their overall strategy to improve student achievement and narrow the achievement gap.
Susan J. Thompson is the Executive Director of the Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter Public School.