Tuesday, June 2, 2020
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Will Md. students experience more summer slide?

They might, now that Gov Larry Hogan issued an executive order that prohibits schools from starting class before Labor Day or extending the school year beyond June 15.


We discuss a few research studies about summer slide

School leaders across the state have come out in near-unanimous opposition to the executive order. Many of those superintendents and school district leaders use, as part of their argument against the order, the greater risk students will have of experiencing “summer slide.” Summer slide is the loss of learning that occurs during summer break as students forget some lessons and come back in the fall at a lower spot academically than they were at in June.

Sean Johnson, the lobbyist for the state’s teachers’ union, said the executive order “codified the brain drain” that occurs during summer vacation, according to reporters Erin Cox and Liz Bowie in the Baltimore Sun.

For his part, Mr Hogan has pulled out a study from the Virginia Commonwealth University. Virginia is one of a handful of states in the country with a law similar to the one Mr Hogan put in place with this executive order.

The study looked at whether students who started school before Labor Day performed better on standardized tests than those who returned to school after the holiday. Although districts in the state that sought waivers for the post-Labor Day start tended to have slightly different characteristics from those that didn’t seek waivers—they were more rural and generally had a higher proportion of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals—no statistically significant differences on standardized tests could be detected between those districts and districts that didn’t seek a waiver.

The research, which hasn’t been subject to peer review, barely addresses the question we’re asking, but Virginia was facing the same dilemma as Maryland is and needed to answer it with research. Years from now, universities will conduct similar studies in Maryland and are likely to find similar results.

The big question, which we are unable to adequately answer at this time, is, Will students in Maryland lose more learning over a summer that has been extended by a week or two? On that question, research is equivocal.

Summer slide is real enough for many students

And it affects low-income students more than their affluent counterparts. Summer slide may account for as much as 80 percent of the difference in achievement for students between low- and high-socioeconomic families over their elementary schooling, according to a 2013 study published in The Australian Educational Researcher.

US researchers have found similar results. “Lower-income kids in our research are basically treading water in the summer months,” says Karl Alexander, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who has done extensive work into the setbacks for children without summer educational opportunities.

Mr Alexander has been following hundreds of students in the city since in 1982, NPR reports. Starting in first grade until age 22, he compared their socioeconomic status to their personal and academic development, using tests he admits depend to a large extent on students’ reading ability: dropping out of school, pursuing higher education opportunities, landing high-paying jobs, and so forth.

Only about 4 percent of the children from lower-income households went on to earn a bachelor’s degree, he observed. Summer slide affected them differently, that is, and high-SES kids didn’t experience the same level of summer learning loss in correlative, not causative, studies. Similar differences have been observed over the years on other measures examined.

Other studies looking at characteristics of students besides their SES have confirmed his basic findings: Summer slide affects different students differently. For example, “average” students in terms of academic proficiency lose more over the summer than students who would be considered high-achieving.

Karen E Rambo-Hernandez of Colorado State University and D Betsy McCoach of the University of Connecticut found in 2014 that high achievers don’t grow academically as fast as average students during the school year—there’s simply less “growing room” for students who start out higher than their peers—but high achievers kept learning over the summer at the same slower rate while average students tended to stop learning altogether over the summer.

Again, these studies report correlation, not causation, but show that “average” students and students whose families don’t make as much money lose more ground over the summer than their high-achieving and more affluent peers.

The Harry Potter divide

A decade ago, Princeton University economics professor Alan B Krueger said the difference in summer slide levels between low- and high-SES kids can be attributed, at least in part, to the “Harry Potter divide.” That’s the observation that kids from wealthier families tend to read more over the summer than kids from low-income families.

“Children from low-SES backgrounds don’t get that reading enrichment,” he once said. He served as chief economist of the US Department of Labor in the Clinton administration. His opinion has been supported by research ever since and put into books.

In a 2011 study, published in the journal Educational Leadership, Lorna Smith at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol in the UK writes that schools should take advantage of community and foundation partnerships to give their low-income students “the sort of enrichment typically reserved for more-affluent youngsters.”

She studied a six-week summer program in the UK and found that students who participated in the program gained an average of three months in reading and math skills over the summer, compared to their peers who didn’t participate in the summer learning partnership. Participants also acquired a more positive attitude about school, in addition to the academic gains.

The trick, after developing enrichment programs like that, is convincing kids to participate. Much of that push has to come from outside the school. Parental effort to promote regular attendance in summer school can reduce summer learning losses, even for low-SES students, researchers wrote in a 2005 article in The Elementary School Journal.

Participation means a lot, a new report self-published by the RAND Corporation and reported in the Washington Post says. Third graders from five urban school districts who participated in free summer programs, which combined math and reading with arts and other activities that aren’t usually considered academic, got higher math scores when they got to fourth grade than their peers who didn’t participate.

Engaging kids over the summer

None of this research, though, really addresses the question, and the lack of definitive proof that shorter summers would reduce the summer slide has certainly inspired no big push to year-round schooling or extended school calendars beyond the current 180 days.

Plus, suggesting that districts offer summer enrichment opportunities that families don’t have to pay for (but taxpayers do) puts a lot of pressure on schools when it would more properly be placed on families or other community organizations. Those organizations, like those in the UK study cited, could certainly partner with schools, but raising kids right is a shared responsibility between schools and communities. Plus, students themselves have some responsibility for their own enrichment and learning.

A 2013 study by Seth Gershenson at American University found big differences in the types of activities kids are engaged in over the summer, depending on whether they came from poor or wealthy families. Using the Activity Pattern Survey of California Children and the American Time Use Study, he found “evidence of statistically and practically significant summer-SES time-use gaps, most notably in children’s television viewing.”

That is, poor kids tend to use their summer vacation doing things that don’t challenge their minds, like watching TV, while their wealthier peers tend to use their summer vacation doing things related to cognitive development. More affluent parents also tend to spend more time interacting with their children, he found.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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