Two steps forward, one step back is a common dance step for educators. For the last century, academics have known that students lose ground during the summer. More recently, it became clear that poor students lose much more ground than rich students. A Johns Hopkins study found that up to 2/3rds of the achievement gap between the poor and the better off happened in the summer. The “summer slide” shows up most vividly in math and spelling, less so in reading. All of which qualifies for a “no shit, Sherlock” award. Kids might read in the summer, but absent serious coercion no one does algebra or takes spelling tests while the pools are open. Just like any other human activity, no practice makes you rusty.
When schools open in a month, fifth-grade teachers will be cursing fourth-grade colleagues for not getting students to where they should be, despite the fact the students were at least in the right neighborhood last spring. Politicians will prattle on about our failing schools, missing the point that most of the failure happens outside of the schools’ control. Most importantly, kids will underachieve their potential. And all this because we need the kids to help work the fields this summer? Hardly. The failure to address the summer learning gap is no longer about the needs of an agrarian society; instead it is a simple failure of will. We know that engaging summer educational programming for low-performing populations will improve outcomes. Research and common sense tell us this. Yet we make no move in that direction. How can that be?
First, of course, is money. The 2009 fiscal crisis wiped out whatever gains we had made towards more productive summers. As the New York Times reported, summer school budgets were among the first areas school districts ransacked in their effort to cope with decreased funding levels. My evidence is purely anecdotal, but I have not seen any concentrated attempt to make summer programming a priority now that the money is again trickling in.
Instead, to the extent summer programming exists, it is remedial only and responsive to high-stakes testing. In other words, summer school now exists as the place those who could not pass a mandatory promotion test go to so that they can pass that test. Many districts do not offer any programming for children unless there is a move-on-to-the-next-grade issue. Apparently, an pound of cure is worth well more than an ounce of prevention.
More than anything else, though, we have a standardization issue. Public school policy is largely a “one size fits all” proposition. The kids in Highland Park, Lake Travis and Southlake do not need engaging summer programming. More precisely, they do not need the schools to provide engaging summer programming because parents take on that role. The absence of need in the districts of influential lawmakers guarantees the absence of action in the districts where there is a need. You try telling Mrs. Park Cities that her kids will not be going to Camp Debutante O’ the Pines because school is still in session.
To the folks at the National Summer Learning Association, all of the above are solvable problems. As a start point, if we release ourselves from a traditional summer school mindset, we lose the idea that everyone must participate. We will not be adding school days to the official calendar; we will be adding opportunity for those who need it. Money is always an issue, but not an insurmountable one. The infrastructure for these programs already exists and there are plenty of creative ways to leverage para-professional help to drive down personnel costs. By definition, if we add children to the program who have already passed their high-stakes tests, there will be room for something other than “teaching to the test.”
The real question is who is willing to be a “disrupter” and aggressively challenge the status quo? More than anything else we need an urban district superintendent and school board who want to do more than dabble; a group willing to bet big on the road less traveled. Given what we know about how the summertime blues handcuff too many children, the bet seems to be one worth taking.