By Jeff Cole, Associate Vice President of School-Community Partnerships
As we ease into the break from our school year routines, enjoying the beautiful weather that has blessed Nebraska this spring, it is easy for us to forget that learning never takes a holiday. Young people, starting from birth and throughout their formative years, are always learning and growing.
June 21 is National Summer Learning Day, a day set aside to remind all Americans of the important role the summer months (Summer officially starts on June 21) play in this developmental continuum.
But many students don’t reap the benefits of summer learning.
Research validates a troubling trend. Each year when school starts anew, Nebraska teachers are faced with an undeniable reality – the summer months provide wildly different experiences that enhance the educational growth of some students, while others fall months behind their peers.
For some youth, especially those for middle or upper income families, summer is full of expanded learning opportunities – regular trips to museums, vacations, libraries, and zoos. They get more plenty of fresh summer fruits and vegetables, participate in hands-on learning programs, take family outings – and all of these new experiences that enrich what they learned during the school year. These kids come back to school smarter than when they left.
For youth living in poverty, the summer months look dramatically different – Kids in low-income families watch more TV and have fewer conversations with adults. Outings, vacations and learning opportunities aren’t in the family budget. They may be caring for their younger siblings and have access to only low quality food . . . or not enough of it.
Then they go back to school. Some ahead . . . and some behind.
Teachers see the impact of these different experiences when they welcome their students back into classrooms from Chadron to Omaha at the start of each new school year. While some students are poised to restart learning just about where they left off, it can take teachers months to bring others back to the point they were when summer started.
The gap has always been there. But now it’s wider than ever.
Researchers have long documented that all children lose some of their learning gains during the summer months, especially in math skills. Over the past several decades, however, low-income students have been shown to lose more of their gains than their higher-income peers. Overall, the achievement gap between children from high and low income families – the root cause of so many of our educational problems – is approximately 30-40% larger for youth today than it was for children born in the 1970s.
Why the growing discrepancy? Clearly, times have changed. Researchers are increasingly pointing to the wildly different experiences between the out-of-school time opportunities, including summer experiences, available to children of different economic backgrounds as a key element in this growing educational divide.
Understanding the role that education plays in improving their children’s prospects, parents are investing more time and money than ever before in their children’s development. While this is true for all income levels, high-income parents are increasing their investments in their children’s early childhood, out-of-school time and summer learning opportunities. By definition, lower-income families have less to invest in these informal learning opportunities for their children. This is especially true during the summer months when the dependability of the school year routines falls away and the support structures that many low-income parents depend on to make ends meet disappears.
Predictably, this leads to radically different summer learning experiences for youth of from different economic backgrounds. Over time, this creates huge disparities in student achievement. By some estimates, the resulting “summer learning slide” that plagues low income youth can account for as much as 2/3rds of the ninth grade achievement gap in reading.
That’s the problem. Now here’s what we can do about it.
Generations of Americans have always viewed education as a way out of poverty, a chance to climb aboard the first rung on an ever extending ladder of economic opportunity that leads to a brighter future for all. Research has shown, however, that youth from high-poverty families start out lower on this ladder, encounter weak or non-existent rungs along the way, and are more likely to fall off the climb altogether without a helpful hand to pull them back up. The long term costs of this failure to thrive are substantial for both the individuals who face a lifetime of limited options and for our society as a whole as we grapple with the long-term costs associated with educational failure.
Summer learning programs can help bridge these opportunity gaps.
High-quality summer learning programs targeting low-income youth have been shown to improve academic outcomes. There are opportunities for all of us to play a part in addressing this need. In communities across Nebraska, groups like libraries, parks, colleges and universities, science centers, churches, museums, community centers and schools are playing important roles in helping to provide more high-quality informal learning opportunities for more youth during the summer months.
School-based community learning centers, places and partnerships uniting schools and diverse community organizations, are providing thousands of Nebraska students with enriching hands-on summer learning opportunities that can help prevent the summer slide. And because they are built around the high-quality public schools that exist in all Nebraska communities, Community Learning Centers can serve as an ideal platform to provide more youth, especially those from our state’s most challenging educational environments, with meaningful learning experiences they need over the summer months.
Supporting these programs is one powerful way to extend the promise of the good life to all Nebraska youth.
Find out more about the impact of summer learning loss. Watch this episode of NET’s The State of Education in Nebraska.