Education Opinion

Summertime Learning Loss

By Walt Gardner — June 20, 2011 2 min read
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The living may be easy in the summertime, but the learning lost over the two-month break is hard to overcome. Research has shown that students on average lose about one month of academic skills. For low-income students, however, the loss can be three times as much. In recognition of this problem, June 21 has been designated as National Summer Learning Day. It’s a reminder of the importance of maintaining the knowledge and skills taught during the regular school year.

There are several excellent programs dedicated to this proposition. I’d like to focus on Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL), which was founded in 1992 to provide disadvantaged children with enrichment opportunities that their advantaged classmates have long enjoyed through travel and summer camp. By 2010, it had more than 7,000 students in its program in six cities across the country.

BELL refers to its students as “scholars” in the belief that the designation helps instill the proper attitude about education. In addition to academic lessons, it takes students to museums, parks and other educational sites to reinforce classroom instruction. Participation is free. Those chosen are already in BELL’s after-school program or are recommended by principals. Parents are offered workshops to help them become even more involved in their children’s education.

The goal of BELL is to create a culture of success for students whose home and neighborhood environment often militates against this objective. It’s important to stress this because in-school factors have to compete with out-of-school factors in educating young people. Whatever can be done to compensate for the huge deficits that poor children bring to school is a step in the right direction.

Some critics have said that BELL and other similar programs would not be needed if two proposals presently circulated were implemented. Let’s see why that view is misguided.

The first is increasing the amount of homework. This has led some school districts to get carried away in the belief that if a little is good, a whole lot is better (“In Homework Revolt, School Districts Cut Back,” The New York Times, June 16). That’s a mistake. Homework has to be designed with the same care that doctors prescribe drugs. Overloading students is as dangerous as overdosing patients.

The second is extending the school year. It’s true that students in the U.S. aren’t in school as long as their peers in other industrialized countries. Recognizing the disparity, Massachusetts added about 300 hours in 19 public schools. But the results were not consistent. Miami-Dade Country also posted mixed results when it lengthened the school day and year at low-performing schools. As with homework, quantity does not guarantee quality.

In the final analysis, children need a change in scenery and routine as much as adults do. Learning does not take place only in classrooms. That’s all the more reason to wish that BELL will thrive and expand.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.