Editor’s note: Brenda McLaughlin will be at OSI-Baltimore for the first forum in our Learning about Learning series, Expanding Learning Beyond the School Year, on Tuesday, June 7th.
Friday, June 17 is the last day of school for students in Baltimore City. Here in the suburbs of Philadelphia, my sons share the same last day. As the school year comes to a close, families and children prepare for new summer schedules—some filled with camps, cookouts, tutors and leisure, and others filled with anxiety, boredom and no place to go.
So why does it matter how kids spend their summers? Because summers make a pivotal difference in setting kids on the path to college. Over the past 25+ years, researchers at the Johns Hopkins University have followed a group of Baltimore City Public School children from first grade through adulthood to examine the influence of summer experiences on a young person’s academic trajectory. The study, called the Beginning School Study (BSS), reported these findings:
- Better-off and disadvantaged youth make similar achievement gains during the school year; but during the summer disadvantaged youth fall significantly behind in reading while their peers continue to make gains.
- By the end of fifth grade, disadvantaged youth were nearly three years behind their peers in reading, and nearly all of that difference was due to how they spent their summers.
- Early summer learning losses cast a long shadow—the same lower-income youth were less likely to be placed in a college-track curriculum, less likely to graduate from high school, and less likely to move on to college.
You might wonder what the better-off youth were doing over the summer that they continued to make gains while their peers lost ground. In the case of the BSS, they were spending more time reading, visiting the library and checking out books. They were also taking lessons like swimming, dancing and music; visiting local parks, fairs, zoos, museums, and science centers; and playing organized sports like soccer, field hockey and softball. In short, they had more access to resources that continued to support their learning and development—and those resources mirror what’s typically available to youth in a high-quality summer learning program.
Taking my lead from the literature, my audacious idea is this: give our most vulnerable youth access to the same types of summer resources available to our most privileged. What if every private camp, independent school, and college campus reserved 25% of its summer program slots for low-income public school children most at risk for summer slide?
While the economics of this proposal may seem improbable, consider the economics of our current school year. We spend nine months and tremendous amounts of energy and resources to promote learning and achievement for all students while school is in session; and then we step back for three months only to let 1/3 of that investment fizzle away. We have created an incredibly inefficient system in terms of how we invest our resources. What many people don’t realize is that we will pay for this inefficiency regardless, whether it’s proactively through summer scholarships, or retroactively through social services and lost tax revenues.
With the right set of summer experiences, we could turn our losses into net gains—and make summer the season of joyful growth it ought to be for every child.