School's Out for Summer

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Like most teachers, Janice Toth has always known that, after a long and lazy summer break, her students would need to spend most of September reviewing material they had already learned the year before.

What is less obvious, however, to the Pittsburgh high school teacher and many of her colleagues, is that the amount of review students need could have a lot to do with their socioeconomic status. A small but growing number of studies show that, while learning slows down for all students when school is out, it practically grinds to a halt for those who come from disadvantaged homes. Moreover, some of those students even lose ground academically over the long vacation period.

"Being out of school can actually be detrimental to some kids,'' says Nancy L. Karweit, a researcher for the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students.

"Teachers don't see their students the prior spring,'' she says. "I don't think they have any clue there is this differential in learning rates over the summer.''

As far back as 1906, researchers have published studies documenting a "summer effect'' on learning for all students. Some of those studies have pointed out, for example, that over the summer students appeared to forget more of what they had learned in mathematics than they did in other subjects, such as reading.

But it wasn't until the 1960's and 1970's that researchers began to notice the connection between the intensity of the summer effect and students' economic backgrounds. In 1972, Barbara Heyns, who is now a sociology professor at New York University, conducted one of the first and most comprehensive studies to explore how economic differences influence the summer effect.

Heyns undertook her work in response to the prevailing view at the time that schooling had no effect on closing the learning gaps between black and white, and rich and poor, students. Her idea was to use the summer period as a sort of experimental control--a stand-in for no school--that could provide a point of comparison for looking at whether schooling makes a difference for disadvantaged children.

Toward that end, Heyns tracked nearly 3,000 Atlanta 6th and 7th graders over a period of two years. She looked at their scores on standardized achievement tests given in May and October of each year, surveyed their parents for information on their socioeconomic status, and interviewed a smaller sample of 500 students to find out how they had spent their summers.

She found that children of every income level and all racial groups learned at much slower rates over the summer than they did during the school year. But advantaged children continued to make academic gains even when school was closed. Disadvantaged children, in comparison, either seemed to tread water academically or to lose some learning.

"Those rates of inequality sometimes doubled and tripled,'' Heyns says.

Yet, from October to May, poorer children were able to make great strides in narrowing the achievement gap that separated them from their more advantaged peers. However, they weren't able to completely catch up before another summer rolled around, causing the achievement gap to widen further.

"Heyns's data, therefore, suggest that, if all schools were to be closed down, converting childhood into one endless summer, the eventual achievement gap between initially advantaged children and initially disadvantaged children would be even greater than it now is,'' writes her colleague, Christoper Jencks, in a foreword to a 1978 book on the study.

The Primary Culprit

More recently, researchers Karl L. Alexander and Doris R. Entwistle carried that conclusion a step further. In a 1992 paper, they suggest that the differential slowdown in learning that occurs over the summer may account for most of the gap between the achievement of disadvantaged and relatively advantaged students throughout the course of their schooling.

In their study, which comes out of an ongoing, longitudinal study of 790 Baltimore students who entered 1st grade in 1982, both disadvantaged and relatively advantaged students began their school careers at pretty much the same academic level. Verbal- and mathematics-achievement scores on standardized tests given to those students at the beginning of 1st grade showed only modest differences between the two socioeconomic groups.

Moreover, during the months they were in school, both groups learned atabout the same rate. It was only during summer that the achievement gap began to open up.

"That gap between high-S.E.S. [socioeconomic status] students and low-S.E.S. students increases steadily over the years,'' says Alexander, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. "And that mostly reflects the more substantial strides upper-S.E.S. kids make during the summer months.''

Researchers do not know with certainty why learning seems to slow down so much for poor students when they are not in school. They do, however, have some suspicions.

"It seems clear there are differences in what society is giving kids,'' says Idorenyin Jamar, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center who has reviewed the studies. "Advantaged kids seem to get more structured activities and more enrichment.''

"It costs money to send your kids to summer camp,'' she adds. Ballet lessons, trips to Europe, and museum visits also occur more frequently in more affluent households.

"It also depends on whether you thinkwhat should be explained is what kids' lives are like during the summer rather than what they're like during the school year,'' Heyns adds. "Learning patterns are the combined effects of everything parents do all year round.''

However, Heyns in her study pinpointed several kinds of summer activities that seemed to contribute to greater gains in summer learning for all students.

Primary among those activities was reading. Somewhat inexplicably, however, her data suggest that owning a bicycle and being allowed to take a trip alone were also factors linked to greater learning gains over the summer.

The latter, she writes in her book, Summer Learning and Effects of Schooling, may hold true because those children were more mature or motivated to begin with, and, therefore, their parents trusted them to travel alone. Parents' child-rearing styles that encourage independence in children may also contribute to learning, she speculates.

Summer School

Heyns found summer school, though, did not make much of a difference.

At the time she conducted her research, Atlanta had extensive summer-school programs, which more than one-fourth of the district's students attended on a voluntary basis. Those half-day programs were located mostly in schools with large numbers of disadvantaged children. But they varied widely in program offerings and most lasted only six weeks. And, although they included remedial instruction, they were largely recreational.

Karweit says a number of other studies, however, have drawn similar conclusions. "You'd think, well, give them summer school and that should remedy the situation,'' she says. "In general, if you look at the literature, that doesn't seem to indicate that it's been effective.''

But, as Alexander of Johns Hopkins points out, "there's also the possibility that summer programs are doing better than they are credited for and what they are doing is preventing backsliding.''

One possible exception to the dismal trend may be the Summer Training and Employment Program, or STEP, a project operated by Public/Private Ventures, a Philadelphia-based foundation.

Targeted to disadvantaged students between ages 14 and 16, the program takes place over two summers and offers a combination of paid employment, general education, and life-skills training. By the end of their first summer in the program, replication studies have shown, students gain an average of four months in reading and eight months in mathematics.

In the long run, however, the program has been less successful at curbing dropout rates among participants. For that reason, STEP's founders have created successor summer programs aimed at older students. Those newer programs have not been formally evaluated.

Another solution advanced for the summer-effect problem has been year-round schooling. Although the data have yet to provide conclusive evidence that moving to a year-round calendar improves students' academic achievement, several studies suggest that it does--particularly for disadvantaged students.

"I think disadvantaged students and learning-disabled students suffer the most from retention losses over the summer, and I think they've benefited from year-round schooling,'' says Kathy Harper, a teacher coordinator for the Socorro Independent School District near El Paso, which recently moved to a year-round schedule and has tracked the resulting effects on students. "It's the best thing we've seen for migrant children.''

In studies on the subject, though, it is difficult to tease out whether the improvements are due to shortened vacation breaks, more days of schooling, or some other factors.

"Some kids just don't like school,'' Jamar adds, "and if you give them more of the same, I'm not sure it would make a difference.''

Flaws and Findings

Despite the potential significance of the summer effect on student learning over all, the subject has garnered relatively little attention from researchers, Karweit says.

Moreover, existing studies suffer from some shortcomings.

"It's not as clear as we would like,'' Jamar of Pittsburgh's L.R.D.C. concurs.

Like most other studies on the summer effect, Heyns's study, for example, measures achievement through tests given in October and May. That means two months of instructional time are included in the "summer'' periods. And, as Alexander points out, most of the children who attend Baltimore's schools are disadvantaged.

"If you had data that represented the entire country, you might find larger initial differences,'' he says.

Jamar also questions the use of traditional standardized tests to measure student achievement because they may not tap the full range of children's capabilities.

Still, the bottom line in all of the studies is a positive one for educators, Karweit says.

"It says what a good job schools are doing for disadvantaged kids.''

Vol. 13, Issue 39E, Pages 35-37

Published in Print: July 13, 1994, as School's Out for Summer
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