Column: Kids, use the summer to learn

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

Enjoying your vacation, kids?

I hate to talk doom and gloom when the sun’s shining and the pool’s inviting. It seems downright immoral – or at least unseasonal.

But the evidence is pretty clear: How you spend July is a huge factor in whether you turn into an academic superstar or a straggler.

“It’s absolutely critical for learning,” said Ron Fairchild, executive director of the Center for Summer Learning in Baltimore. “Summers aren’t expendable.”

Doesn’t seem fair, does it? Aren’t summers supposed to be about relaxing, not thinking?

That’s what our culture – from the Beach Boys to MTV’s Summer Beach House – tells us. It’s what the summertime industry – from 4-H camps to Six Flags Over Texas – tells us.

Why does it matter what kids do when it’s hot outside?

Because there’s a lot of evidence that it’s one of the biggest reasons poor kids fall behind their richer peers.

Two years ago, researchers at Johns Hopkins University published a fascinating study. They randomly selected 790 first-graders – some poor, some not – and tracked their scores on a standardized test over time.

They found that schools were actually doing a pretty good job of helping poor kids keep up. From September to May, poor first-graders in the study learned enough to boost their scores 106 points. The scores of middle-class and wealthy kids went up 106 points, too – dead even.

But when they tested the same kids again at the end of summer vacation, the better-off kids had gained another 24 points while away from school. Poor kids had dropped 9 points.

The researchers kept following the kids and found the same gap yawning open every summer. Over five summers, the well-off kids gained a total of 72 points while on break. The poor kids lost a total of 7 points – which means they entered sixth grade almost a year behind, purely because of what happened during the summer.

“Summer’s a big reason for the existence of that gap,” Mr. Fairchild said.

Parents often don’t help. The Academy of Educational Development surveyed parents in March and asked what they wanted their kids to get out of summer. Fifty-five percent said they wanted their kids to have fun and relax. Second place, with only 9 percent: learning new things.

In a typical middle-class home, there are plenty of opportunities to learn. Parents are more likely to take an active role in their child’s education. There are probably books to read around the house, along with magazines and newspapers. There’s probably a computer with an Internet connection. Summer trips, perhaps to a museum or historical site, are more likely to have an educational component.

All those benefits are rarer in poor homes.

That’s why researchers have consistently found that poor kids lose two months’ worth of learning over the summer months. That means next fall’s teacher has to spend two months reteaching what kids should already know. Over 12 grades, those months add up.

Educators talk a lot about closing the “achievement gap” between the well-off and the poor. But no matter how much good work schools do to help disadvantaged kids, it won’t be enough as long as summer remains a learning void.

So what’s the solution? I asked Kenneth Gold, a professor at the College of Staten Island who has studied the evolution of the American summer school. He wants summers to be seen as a time for teachers and students to try new things.

“I’m an advocate of summer education programs that don’t feel like school,” he said. “It’s about embracing experimentalism – trying new subjects, developing new teachers, trying new teaching styles.”

That’s similar to how many colleges (and some independent schools) use a “January term” – a short, intense dose of some subject you can’t fit into the regular school day. It’s a great chance to try hands-on, informal learning instead of reading from a textbook.

In one sense, what kids learn in the summer doesn’t matter nearly as much as the simple fact that they’re learning at all. Whether it’s tying knots in the woods, learning the intricacies of the West Coast offense or reading Judy Blume, their minds need to be active.

Staying slumped in front of the TV, picking bellybutton lint, might be relaxing. But it’ll get you in the end.

Joshua Benton covers primary and secondary schools for The Dallas Morning News. Thinking About Education, a column by the newspaper’s education staff, runs each Monday in the Metropolitan section.

See Jane outscore the boys; ‘Nation’s report card’ finds huge gender gap in test of writing skills

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

In 1975, a national magazine wrote a cover story decrying the poor writing skills of American schoolchildren. The headline: “Why Johnny can’t write.”

Almost three decades later, Johnny’s still having trouble – but his sister’s doing just fine.

Girls far outscored boys on the writing portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, according to new data released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Education. It’s the largest gender gap of any major subject area tested by NAEP, the federal tests often called “the nation’s report card.”

The NAEP writing test is given every four years to fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders. It is considered perhaps the most respected of the nation’s major academic tests and allows comparisons between states.

Texas students fared well on the test. The state’s Anglo eighth-grade students had the third-highest NAEP score in the nation when compared with Anglo students in other states. Texas blacks finished fourth in the nation, and Texas Hispanics came in sixth.

Texas fourth-graders also did well: Anglos finished fourth, blacks 14th and Hispanics third.

“We’re seeing some good results, but we know we still have a lot of work left to do,” said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe.

Considered as a whole, Texas was about average. The NAEP writing test is scored on a scale of zero to 300. Texas fourth-graders scored 154, one point above the national average.

Texas eighth-graders scored 152, right at the national average. That’s a two-point drop from the last time the test was given, in 1998. Officials did not release a state-by-state breakdown of 12th-grade scores because not enough students were tested to make comparisons valid.

Language barrier

But Texas is at a significant demographic disadvantage to high-scoring states such as Connecticut and Delaware. Nearly 60 percent of Texas eighth-graders said a language other than English was spoken at home – a situation that usually leads to lower English writing skills. Only California and New Mexico had higher rates.

In addition, 45 percent of Texas students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches – the fourth-highest percentage in the country.

Nationally, fourth- and eighth-grade scores were slightly higher than in 1998. Twelfth-grade scores were slightly lower.

Writing advocates said the increases were welcome but argued that writing still often gets short shrift in schools that focus more on reading and math skills – often because of the way state testing systems are structured.

For example, the federal No Child Left Behind law passed last year requires that states test students in reading and math. It has no such requirement for writing.

Texas’ new TAKS test assesses students in reading every year from grades three to nine, but in writing only twice, in grades four and seven. There are also two English language-arts exams that combine reading and writing into one test.

“There’s a lack of understanding in the role that writing plays in all learning,” said Mary Ann Smith, co-director of the federally funded National Writing Project. “That reading and math would be a priority without writing doesn’t make sense.”

There are signs that writing skills are getting more emphasis. In April, the National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges issued a report calling writing the “neglected R” among the traditional reading, writing and arithmetic. Former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey is leading a five-year national campaign to improve children’s writing.

Last year, officials behind both major college-entrance examinations, the SAT and the ACT, announced they would add a written essay to the tests in 2005.

“Everybody told us, whether it was college professors or English teachers, that the students who come to school today cannot write,” said Gaston Caperton, a former governor of West Virginia and president of the College Board, which produces the SAT.

“Writing is critical to their success. By putting writing on the SAT, it signals very loud and clear that it’s essential.”

It’s a message that boys may need to hear more than girls. At all three grade levels tested, girls finished on top by wide margins.

Forty percent of eighth-grade girls scored high enough on NAEP to be considered “proficient” under the test’s rules. Only 20 percent of boys did.

To put it another way: If all of America’s eighth-grade girls moved to their own state, it would have the fourth-highest writing scores in the country.

If all the boys moved to their own state, it would rank 37th of the 41 states that NAEP tested.

“It’s really a remarkable gap,” Ms. Ratcliffe said. “You see the same trend on other tests – girls just do better on writing.”

The diary theory

Theories abound for the gap. Some say girls are more likely to keep diaries or journals, which provide regular writing practice and help girls express themselves. Others say teachers often assign writing topics that don’t interest boys.

“You have to engage males in a way that is meaningful to them,” said Mary Stockton, a Lewisville school administrator and president of the Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts.

“You have to let them see that putting their interests into words is a worthwhile activity, that they’ll discover things about their interest and themselves that they can’t find any other way.”

It may simply come down to teachers spending more time working with boys on their writing. “Girls probably feel a greater ease in communicating verbally and with language,” said Tom Elieff, head of the upper school at the all-boys St. Mark’s School of Texas.

“With boys, that aspect of their educational development takes much longer.”