Summer Learning Loss: How Do We Keep Kids on Track?

With temperatures in the triple digits in multiple parts of the country this week, it’s difficult to picture sweaty fourth-graders sitting in a classroom, squirming their way through a multiplication worksheet rather than careening their way down a front yard Slip-n-Slide.

But a growing number of education-reform advocates argue that extending the school year well into summer vacation is key to keeping student learning on track.

Over the summer months, students often lose much of what they learn toward the end of the school year. The National Summer Learning Association says standardized test scores drop significantly between June and September.

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, both proponents of a longer school year, say American students are losing the academic race against their Asian and European counterparts whose school year is up to two months longer than our average of 180 days.

At a luncheon at the National Press Club earlier this year, Duncan said, “In all seriousness, I think schools should be open 12, 13, 14 hours a day, seven days a week, 11 to 12 months of the year.”

More than once, Duncan has said that the current school year, which is based on traditional farming and harvesting cycles, is outdated and must be modernized so our kids can compete in the new global economy.

“It is time to start thinking about ways to improve a system that is not working for so many children,” president and cofounder of the National Center on Time and Learning, Jennifer Davis, said on Boston’s WBUR FM.

Davis argues it’s high-poverty children who disproportionately suffer summer learning loss, whereas middle-class and upper-income children often experience learning gains over the three-month break.

Middle-class parents like herself, said Davis, invest significant resources and money to ensure their children remain engaged in learning and enrichment activities. These kids go to camp, take classes, and go on family vacations. But low-income families often can’t afford these options, and by the time fall comes around, these students have fallen behind.

The National Center on Time and Learning aims to create public policy increasing learning time for high-poverty children. And over the last six years, it has made significant headway.

Across the country, hundreds of schools are experimenting with a longer school day and an extended school year. According to the center, more than 700 schools have extended their day. About a quarter of those are traditional public schools and the rest are charters.

At the insistence of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago Public Schools extended the public school day by 75 minutes this year. And 40 schools in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Colorado, and Tennessee plan to add at least 300 hours to the academic calendar as early as the 2013-14 school year. The three-year pilot program will affect about 20,000 students.

But the accepted wisdom that more time in school leads to better academic results is actually not a given.

Dr. Patricia Gandara, a professor of education and codirector of the Civil Rights Project at University of California Los Angeles, has been studying the impact of extended learning time for several decades.

“If you simply extend the school day or the school year without offering anything too different from what you’re already offering to kids, the extra investment may not be worth it,” Gandara said.

“You could keep kids in school for 14 hours a day, but that doesn’t mean that they would actually learn anything more...The important thing is to provide children with optimal instruction.”

Gandara’s study, The Dimensions of Time and the Challenge of School Reform, followed three California school districts that restructured the school year. Each district added six weeks to the calendar and reorganized their schedules by truncating summer vacation and lengthening spring and winter breaks. But beyond that, the study required teachers to propose different types of instruction during the “extra” time.

Teachers were encouraged to go outside of the classroom, create learning workshops, and engage in professional development courses. By the end of the year-long study, students showed “significant gains” and teachers reported a decrease in learning loss over vacations.

“It was the combination of the added days in school and the commitment to changing instruction that proved successful.” After-school programs and extracurricular activities are also integral to improving overall academic performance, said Gandara.

The flip side of this argument is that kids need a break from being constantly evaluated, and they need time away from adult-enforced recreation.

Peter Gray, developmental psychologist and author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, says the U.S. is engaged in “imprisonment schooling.”

“What we have lost over time is children’s free play, and that’s something they’re designed by natural selection to do,” Gray said, also speaking on WBUR.

Gray draws a correlation between the continuous increase in the hours spent in school over the past 50 years to “the dramatic increase in mental disorders and a loss of creativity” kids now endure. He points to research indicating a five to eight-fold increase in depression and anxiety disorders among school-aged children.

“Children who are now being driven to work toward high test scores are not given the space to discover their own passions. They are not learning to solve problems on their own and they’re not learning to get along with other kids,” Gray said.

With regard to the academic performance of Asian students, Gray says countries like South Korea, Singapore, and China have failed to produce entrepreneurs and creative thinkers.

“It’s time to step out of the box of school and think about bringing the joy of learning back to kids and making the experience fun again,” he said.

Whether or not schools want to take up the issue of extending the school day or school calendar may be moot. It may simply come down to money.

The Center for American Progress estimates that providing 300 extra hours of learning time will increase school budgets by six to 20 percent, depending on the staffing model. A 2006 study by the Education Commission of the States calculated that adding just a single extra school day in California would cost almost $293 million.

Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, addressed the issue on “Adding to learning time and spending more time on task is a key strategy, but it has run into an economic reality that’s going to make it difficult to happen.”

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