One of the biggest challenges teachers and students face when returning to school after summer vacation is the loss of learning during the break. The lack of academic focus can negatively impact a student’s learning, resulting in summer learning loss, also known as brain drain.
The reality is that students come back to school losing important information they had left off with in the spring. As one could imagine, it’s tough to study at the beach or complete a research project during a family trip. For many of us, summer and school just don’t seem to mix.
Research suggests that on average, students lose approximately 2.6 months of learning in math and over one month in reading during summer. This, in turn, creates interesting dichotomies for teachers such as having to delay the instruction of new content while incorporating concepts from last spring.
For many years now, summer learning has provided an opportunity for students to “catch up” on credits to graduate from high school or remediation for students not reaching mastery, rather than thinking how summer could be used to enhance student success.
Bigger Impact on the Socioeconomically Disadvantaged?
For the most part, students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds have traditionally less access to the same type of enrichment families with more resources. Since summer learning loss disproportionately impacts socioeconomically disadvantaged students, it may also be a significant contributing factor in the achievement gap.
The research indicates that during summer, students from socioeconomic disadvantaged families forget even more in math than reading. A contributing factor is the large number of parents and students that rarely focus on the importance of math outside of school.
Dr. Martin Gomez, principal of Santee Education Complex, a high-achieving Focus high school in South Central Los Angeles, says that “math is not stressed as much as reading and writing” for some families. He continues: “As much as we have stressed literacy, we need to combine math in the same way. We need to make math relevant and connect it to student’s lives. We need to have students talk about the measurement involved in driving and calculations with money. Perhaps the summer loss would not be as significant.”
To address summer loss, schools have started to partner with community based organizations (CBO) and local government to connect families to important support services. In San Francisco, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), Mayor Ed Lee and CBOs are offering free meals, literacy activities, and books to children and families during the summer.
This type of learning is a new effort to blend academic learning with social emotional learning (SEL) skills, including art, athletics, and academics. This vision comes from a strong desire to use the summer season strategically and prevent brain drain.
What Can Educators & Students Do?
There are practical steps and applications that educators and students can put in place to prevent summer learning loss. The following are several recommended steps for both groups.
Recommended Steps for Educators:
- Increase time and focus of summer to a six-week, traditional school day.
- Expand summer learning to all schools with high concentrations of students that are socioeconomically disadvantaged.
- Expand summer learning from “catching up” to important learning.
- Strengthen and expand existing partnerships among schools, community based organizations, and local government agencies to leverage resources and identify gaps to improve program delivery.
- Provide incentives to students that improve attendance and engagement with enrichment activities such as arts, music, and athletics.
- Provide professional development for educators and pilot promising practices (e.g., curricula, instructional strategies, assessment).
- Include innovative approaches to learning for high school students, including college and career readiness opportunities.
Recommended Steps for Students:
- Discover ways that students can own their learning by making explicit connections to everyday activities. (For example, when students go to the store, calculate change from a purchase or discounts. If students are attending an athletic event like a baseball game, calculate a player’s batting average.)
- Read short stories about culturally-relevant topics applicable to student lives. Studies indicate this type of information increase literacy skills.
- Find small ways to practice academic skills at home. There are plenty of online resources students can leverage to stay engaged. (Including Illuminate Resources)
Students need summer learning opportunities. The summer season offers a number of opportunities and untapped resources to support students in need of additional enrichment and intervention, while making these programs feel more like the traditional school year. To be successful, summer programs should be agile and flexible enough to ensure they meet the needs of students and district city expectations of learners.
It’s the responsibility of everyone—from local leaders, community based organizations, district and site administrators to teachers and students—to provide high-quality summer programs to ensure students retain and accelerate their levels of academic achievement. When cities like San Francisco broaden their responsibility to educate students, especially students that have been underserved, there will be more evidence that others may need to spur collective action.
Alexander, K., Entwisle, D., and Olson, L. (2007). Lasting consequences of the summer learning gap. American Sociological Review, 72, 167-180.
Borman, G.D. (2001). Summers are for learning. Principal, 80(3), 26-29.
Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K., Lindsay, J., & Greathouse, S. (1996). The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and meta-analytic review. Review of Educational Research, 66, 227-268.
McLaughlin, B. and Smink, J. (2009). Summer Learning: Moving from the Periphery to the Core. Denver, Colorado: Education Commission of the States. Progress of Education Reform, Vol. 10, No. 3.
White, W. (1906). Reviews before and after vacation. American Education, 185-188.
Wimer, C., Bouffard, S., Caronongan, P, Dearing, E., Simpkins, S., Little, P., and Weiss, H. (2006). What are kids getting into these days? Demographic differences in youth out-of-school time participation. Harvard, MA: Harvard Family Research Project.
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