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.