Summer is here. We are time-starved, running from camp to camp and trying to keep a work-life balance (whatever that is). How should we engage our kids and keep their brains active and learning during summer? We reviewed the research on "summer learning loss" that summer vacation or the summer slide” has led to achievement gaps in our schools.

Summer learning loss happens when students return to school. Many will start the academic year at achievement levels lower than the levels they were at at the beginning of summer vacation. This especially affects those from economically disadvantaged groups.

There is a rising education inequality among kids. Kids living in underserved areas often go to under-resourced schools and often have limited access to quality afterschool programs and summer programs. And even if afterschool and summer programs exist, often financial constraints make it hard to access these experiences.

It seems like common sense, but research also has illustrated that low-income families have less time and resources to devote to children's after-school enrichment programs and activities as well as summer enrichment programs like camps, music lessons, sports activities and other pay-to-play events. Long work hours and shift work also make it difficult for parents to spend dedicated time engaging in their children’s learning and development.

On the other hand, well-to-do families spend close to seven times more money on afterschool enrichment programs than low-income families. While children from wealthy families get to exercise their brains and bodies at camps, museums, libraries; those without sufficient resources lack such opportunities to progress and they fall weeks behind once schools reopen.

Education researchers have been studying summer learning loss since 1906. According to summer-learning expert Harris Cooper, on an average, students lose about a month of progress in math skills each summer, while those from low-income

families fall as far behind as three months in reading comprehension compared to students from middle-class families. And as Von Drehle (2010) points out, by ninth grade this loss could be blamed for two-thirds of the achievement gap separating income groups.

Entwisle, Alexander and Olson’s “Faucet Theory” explains why children from low-income families learn less over summer than those from higher-income families. According to the theory, though resources are provided to all students equally during the school-year so everyone learns equally, during summer while resources continue for higher-income kids, they slow down for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. For kids from higher income families, parents may help in keeping up the learning process along with access to other activities, while those from low-income families do not get parental help due to parents’ long work hours and other constraints.

During this time of inactivity (mentally and physically) kids tend to lose mathematical and/or reading comprehension skills acquired during the school year. This compounds over the years and continues through high school affecting student outcomes. 

And it's not just schools - we have entire industries lobbying against school-based summer programs. Education researchers, some policymakers and leaders have tried to add days or weeks to the school calendar but have met with barriers of “cost and culture”.

Summer has been painted as a time for fun and frolic, relaxation and doing nothing. There are entire businesses that revolve around summer—think of theme parks, camps (science, math, arts, music, dance etc.), museums, sports, travel. These industries put pressure to keep schools closed for summer as long as possible. So the burden falls on some dedicated and passionate advocates, including parents, enthusiastic community leaders, and educators. 

Over the years, educators and policymakers have developed summer enrichment programs to help close this gap. And researchers have found that some of these classroom summer programs have yielded positive results. But their findings also revealed that it was middle-income students who benefited most from this rather than lower-income students. This was attributed to the “interactive effect between programming, home resources or that programs serving more advantaged kids were of higher quality.”

Also how effective are school-based summer programs? Some studies have found that school-based summer programs are not that effective probably due to lack of attracting high-quality teachers and high costs of the summer school programs. Some found low-cost home-based programs to be more cost-effective, such as READS. There are many other fun math games online that could be an alternative to school-based programs. 

Quinn & Polikoff (2017) recommend academic learning with  hands-on activities, “professionalizing the school staff and forming partnerships with community organizations to leverage resources.” The summer learning could be made into fun learning. It doesn’t have to be boring or serious or feel like work. Learning and education need to be infused into summer activities, whether it is a trip to a zoo, museums, playing soccer, swimming. Leadership skills, planning skills, fitness principles all could be a part of these fun activities during summer.

Around the country, some institutions like churches, nonprofit organizations, local philanthropies are finding different ways of engaging kids and propelling them on a path to learning every summer. Von Drehle points to some such institutions in Indianapolis (United Way, Eli Lilly pharmaceuticals etc.) Cincinnati, Houston and Kentucky that have coordinated efforts to provide safe places for kids to go to when they are out of school, infusing fun with learning.

Summer learning is imperative for kids of all backgrounds. They should have access to summer learning and enrichment programs to keep their education going and help them retain what they’ve learned during the school year and to succeed in the next.

The programs must be engaging for students so that they do not feel it’s an intrusion into their free, fun time. Hands-on learning infused with life-skills will make it more fun during summer.

The programs must specifically, be targeted at those who are at a greater risk to slide down during the next school-year and stop this compounding problem of the academic achievement gap.

Well, at this point I bet you are tired of reading this depressing data and just want some fun and easy ways to tackle the Summer Slide. 

We wrote Off-Kitla Matilda™ to help solve these gaps and get parents and kids learning together. This summer we will fill this blog with free ideas on how to have fun at home and practice STEM so your child will not experience the "Summer Slide" but will be a STEM leader on that first day back to school.