Summer Programs are the Most Effective Approach to Remedying Summer Learning Loss

Low-income Students, Summer Learning Loss and Summer School


Desmond B. Worrell

Summer learning loss has been identified as a problem affecting children in the United States school system from as early as 1906 (McLaughlin and Smink). However, in recent times the issue has received more attention from politicians, administrators and policymakers because of the decreasing competitiveness of US elementary and high school students on standardized tests, when compared with many of the other industrialized nations (Drehle 39). The root of the problem, according to Harris Cooper, one of the most widely cited Educational Psychologists, is that students 99in the US spend less time in the classroom per academic year and less time studying core subjects, largely due to an antiquated academic year of 180 days. According to Paul, noted educator and former president of George Washington University, the need for a summer vacation of three months tied to an agrarian-based economy became obsolete more than a hundred years ago (147).

Summer learning loss has been variously called “summer slide,” “summer loss,” and “summer setback.” As an educational issue, it is recognized as the loss of academic achievement at the beginning of the academic year, when students return to school after summer vacation. This retrogression in academic standard, particularly as measured by mathematics and reading achievement, can be as much as two months or more and has its greatest impact on low-income students (Smith and Brewer 1). Paul cites a 2001 USA Today survey that asked teachers about the time it takes to regain the ground lost after summer break, which reported that 95 percent of their responses varied from two weeks to more than two months (144). The most effective way to address this loss and bridge the achievement gap particularly for low-income students is access to summer school programs.

Based on their socioeconomic status, students enter school at different achievement levels. During the school year, these students achieve the same level of academic advancement and end the academic year on similar academic levels. However, it is during summer that the academic “slide” occurs, and when the summer ends students from lower socioeconomic groups find themselves behind their peers. In fact, this was has been generally established since Barbara Heyns made similar conclusions in her book Summer Learning in 1978 from her research on Atlanta middle school children (Alexander, Entwisle, and Olson 1). The gap widens each summer and becomes cumulative so that by the end of elementary school, lower income students are almost three grades behind, particularly in reading, and they are likely to be permanently affected in their life’s achievements (Primer 1; Alexander, Entwisle, and Olson 5). In addition, the earlier this academic loss occur in a child’s development, the more it affects their advanced academic life, which finds expression in drop out rates, high school placement, or college enrollment (McLaughlin and Smink). Study after study has shown that whereas mathematics scores fall about evenly despite the economic status of students, it is the reading achievement that shows the greatest decline, particularly among poor students (Paul 143). Cooper has also noted that because of the growing emphasis on higher educational standards across the United States, students who are not achieving at grade level in mathematics and reading will typically be retained or asked to attend a summer learning program (1). In a meta-analysis done by Cooper and other researchers, it was found that the learning disparity observed as a result summer loss had little to do with intelligence, sex, or ethnicity (Cooper 2).

Learning loss is therefore attributed to the time spent out of the classroom during summer, away from active learning stimuli and opportunities to continue practicing and learning academic skills such as mathematics computation and reading. This is particularly true among poor families, as compared with their middle class colleagues (Cooper 3). Additionally, research has highlighted the fact that the disparity in achievement is really an excellent laboratory for understanding the role of homes and communities in student learning achievement (Alexander, Entwisle, and Olson 1).

Three gereral solutions have therefore been proposed and tried in an attempt to address and narrow the acheivement gap compounded by summer loss. These are: creating a modified school year, year-round school and summer school programs. The modified school year aims at breaking long vacation time into smaller blocks, but there has been no measurable increase in learning achievement observed from using this model, and it has only been one fifth to one third as effective as summer school programs (Primer; Policy Interventions). Attempts to extend the school year has met animated opposition from teachers and their unions, who cite potential teacher and student burn out as a majpr concern. Opposition from parents has also arisen because they do not want to rearrange their summer vacation plans and they have formed grass-roots organizations such as Save our Summers in protest to this plan. These organizations have received ready support from industry interest such as the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (Policy Interventions; Primer).

Summer school programs, by contrast, have been successfully helping lower-income students to remediate their learning for decades, mainly because the affluent could afford the services of private tutors for their children, and the disadvantaged students were the ones attending the school-based programs (Cooper 3). There has been a significant growth in the adoption of summer schools as an integral part of the education reform agenda aimed at reducing the academic gap. According to Cooper, in 1990, The New York Times ran an article highlighting the fact that the 10 largest school districts in the nation had over 850, 000 students enrolled in summer school, and that there was an almost four-fold increase in the number of Title I schools utilizing federal funds to subsidize summer programs. Summer programs are highly adaptable to the various needs of different groups of children. As Cooper observed, these range from purely remedial, through allowing retake of a failed course, to programs ensuring that disadvantaged or disabled youth have full access to supplemental educational services, to enriched or accelerated programs (3-4).

A report from John Hopkins University’s Center for Summer Learning, using the results of a three year study from the Teach Baltimore Summer Academy program, highlights the fact that utilizing a multi-summer program with college students as the volunteer instructors effectively reverses the summer loss reading achievement of disadvantaged students (Primer). Work highlighted in the Hamilton Project shows that, of those students who did pass the math and reading standards at the beginning of summer, about half successfully passed by the end of summer (Policy Interventions 18). Summer programs also provide opportunities for parents to become involved in maintaining the acamedic progress of their children, and this has been shown to be part of highly successful remediation programs (Cooper 6). In addition, summer programs utilize informal learning experiences based on reading for fun and enjoyment, which is a priority for parents during summer (Primer). Summer school has also been highlighted as a huge potential resource for teachers to explore innovative ways to reduce the achievement gap without the confines of the traditional curriculum (McLaughlin and Smink).

Children from lower-income families rely almost exclusively on schools for access to reading materials. Reading programs such as those provided by community libraries during the summer, further highlight the flexibility of summer programs in helping to bridge achievement gaps through reading material access (Smith and Brewer 4). In this context, summer school programs provide excellent collaborative instruments between community-based organizations and schools and colleges to pool resources in addressing the needs of underprivileged children during the summer. An example of this is the involvement of non-profit organizations such as the National Summer Learning Association in Baltimore, which is “part of a growing movement to stop summer slide by coordinating, expanding and improving summer enrichment programs – especially for low income children” (Dreble 38). Such is the importance that is being placed on summer loss that easily recognized donor organizations such as the Wallace foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are getting involved. Dreble indicates that in Indiana, more than 11 charties have pooled their efforts to ensure the success of summer programs with a combined financial input of $3 million to run some 200 summer programs in the city of Indianapolis. This is particularly significant for this city, as less than half of their high school students graduate. Comprehensive summer school programs have also gained the reputation of impacting the students beyond academics and improving their confidence, self esteem, attendance, overall discipline and helping them avoid risky behavoirs (Fairchild, McLaughlin, and Costigan 3). Other researchers have shown that another critical need being met by summer programs in rural areas is the provision of meals to low-income students in these areas, also “lose ground nutritionally and return to school in the fall less healthy than they were in the the spring” (Phillips, Harper, and Gamble 66).

Critics say that part of the drawback associated with summer programs is its cost and lack of access to some of the students who need it the most. However, the research and policy reommendations from psychologists and other educational researchers all indicate that more and more administrators, politians and communites are embracing summer school as an integral part of educational reform, because its proven benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. Add to this the current dynamic in which the American household is headed by either a single parent or two parents working outside the home, it is anticipated that summer school’s role in reducing the academic gap for disadvantaged students will only continue to grow in the decades to come.


Works Cited

Alexander, Karl L., Doris Entwisle, and Linda Olson. “Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap.” American Sociological Review 72. 2007: 167-180. Web. 26 Feb. 2011.

Copper, Harris. “Summer School: Research-based Recommendations for Policymakers.” Serve Policy Brief 2001: 1-8. Facts on File. Web. 21 Feb. 2011.

Drehle, David. “The Case Against Summer Vacation.” Time 2 Aug. 2010: 36-42. Print.

Fairchild, Ron, Brenda McLaughlin, and Brenda Costigan. “How Did You Spend Your Summer Vacation? What Public Policies Do and Don’t Do to Support Support Summer Learning Opportunites for All Youth.” The Robert Browne Foundation. New York. After School Matters. Occasional Paper Series. No. 8. Spring 2007: 1-25. Print.

McLaughlin, Brenda and Jeffery Smink. “Summer Learning: Moving from the Periphery to the Core.” Progress of Education Reform 10.3 (2009). n. pag. Web. 26 Feb. 2011.

Paul, Simon. Our Culture of Pandering.Carbondale Southern Illinois University Press, 2003. Print.

Phillips, Ruthellen, Stacey Harper, and Susan Gamble. “Summer Programing in Rural Communities: Unique Challenges.” In Summertime: Confronting Risks, Exploring Solutions. Ron Fairchild and Gil G. Noam. Eds. New Directions for Youth Development No. 114. Summer 2007: 65-73. Print.

Policy Interventions to Remedy Summer Learning Loss.” Hamilton Project: Discussion Papers 2006 3: 15-20. Academic Search Complete. Web. 26 Feb. 2011.

Primer on Summer Loss Learning” Reading is Fundamental. n.d. Web. 28. Feb. 2011.

Smith, Malbert and Dee Brewer. “Stop Academic Summer Loss. An Education Policy Priority.” A white paper from Metatrix Inc. Durham, 2007. Google Search. Web. 26 Feb. 2011.

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