Opinion
Reading & Literacy Commentary

Summer Learning Can Be a Game Changer

By Gary Huggins — January 15, 2013 5 min read

The recent commitment by school leaders in five states to add 300 hours of learning time for students is an important step forward for a public education system that too often is cutting back on the very school hours that our children need to achieve and grow. The project, called the TIME Collaborative, will bring the expanded hours to nearly 20,000 students in 11 districts in Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, and Tennessee, with support from the Ford Foundation and technical assistance from the National Center on Time & Learning. We urge these states and school districts, along with others around the country, to include in their strategy for these new learning hours the season of greatest educational risk and setback: summer.

A century of research confirms what teachers know from experience: Students lose during summer vacation too much of what they learned during the school year. Students typically score lower on standardized tests after the summer break than they did before it. Most students lose two months of mathematical skills every summer, and low-income children lose another two to three months in reading. The many positive efforts in progress to improve teaching, raise standards, and add hours to the school day will be undermined by the well-documented, annual, and cumulative problem of summer-learning loss.

The extra body of time summer represents is too full of opportunity for our educational system to let it sit fallow. Districts must seize this time to get both students and teachers ready for the Common Core State Standards, and the higher targets that competition in the global workforce demands. But more than just hours, the summer months offer a unique flexibility that is critical to both educational innovation and to the way students see the experience of school. Summer learning can change the game for students, especially those who are struggling. It should be a time for reimagination and deeper learning, when kids have a chance to reframe their attitudes toward school and connect with teachers and content in an entirely different way, when they have a chance to get comfortable with the expectations of a new grade or school. With extra time and a setting that is stimulating and engaging, students can truly hit the ground running in September.

While the evidence is solidly on the side of adding learning time during the summer months, budget constraints and old, punitive stereotypes can make it a tough sell. But school leaders who understand how summer affects their academic bottom line have found, as research from the RAND Corp. shows, that along with providing an important leg up for students, providing a high-quality summer learning program typically costs less than providing the same weeks of instruction as part of the school year.

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Summer is a season for discovery, investigation, reading for pleasure, and playing. Kids might not realize it, but these activities describe some of the best ways we learn. “Summer has always been a place for the joy of learning, and it’s also been a place for the joy of teaching,” Lorna Smith, the chief executive officer of the high-quality summer learning program Horizons National, said during a session at the national Summer Changes EverythingTM conference in Pittsburgh this past October.

School districts can enhance summer learning by embracing community-based programs and resources, including public libraries and museums, that have so much to engage children in learning and yet are often overlooked as an essential ingredient in the summer learning solution. In places like New York City; Houston; Pittsburgh; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Oakland, Calif., school districts have realized exactly that, and have created robust and interesting summer learning programs that upend draconian notions of summer school. These districts and others like them around the country have prioritized summer as a path to help students improve achievement, with programs that provide both academic rigor and engaging activities—such as studying native bee populations, learning judo, creating websites, or studying the social issues of the dystopian young-adult novel The Hunger Games—intentionally designed to open new pathways to learning important skills. In turn, these innovative instructional approaches piloted in summer are affecting the way teaching and learning happen all year, as was the case last summer in Chicago after a teacher completed a fellowship with the summer science program Project Exploration, then went on to develop lesson plans for her classroom and to share with colleagues.

The unfortunate truth is that many children do not have the freedom, resources, or access to experience these stimulating aspects of the summer season through the safety and direction of camps or family vacations. Instead, far too many spend more time inside, inactive, and glued to screens than they do during the school year.

A century of research confirms what teachers know from experience: Students lose during summer vacation too much of what they learned during the school year."

And because they are cut off for months during summer from the resources and supports schools can provide, many low-income children also lose access to basic needs such as food and supervision during the day. Six out of seven children who qualify for federally funded meals during the school year do not have access to those meals during the summer. Many summer learning programs provide them, along with learning and physical activity.

Many parents already know how important summer learning is to their children’s success, and yet they lack access to affordable options. A 2010 national survey of parents by the Afterschool Alliance found that while 14 million children attend summer learning programs, another 24 million would attend if only their parents were able to send them.

Along with keeping students from sliding during summer, high-quality community-based programs and resources should be used to help fill the gap between school schedules and the hours parents work. The more school districts invite and participate in these partnerships, the more vibrant community learning opportunities will be aligned with school-year goals in a productive way. And the more these programs can work with children all year, the better they’ll know these students and what they can accomplish.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called the new learning-time initiative “kernels of a national movement.” We hope the Obama administration and school districts around the country will act boldly to propel the movement for expanded learning time to its fullest potential and help students reach higher targets by encouraging and expanding the best kind of summer learning.

A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2013 edition of Education Week as It’s Time for Summer Learning

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