Science is more than theory and lecture. Science is fun. Science is hands-on. Science is…
Millions of U.S. children and teens have packed up what’s left of their school supplies, turned in their textbooks and said their goodbyes to friends and teachers, all in dutiful commemoration of a time-honored tradition.
Yes, summer vacation is here.
An American institution since the late 19th century – according to PBS NewsHour, that was when “school reformers started pushing for standardization of the school calendar across urban and rural areas” – summer vacation is now as embedded within the culture as fireworks on the Fourth of July.
But is the resulting learning loss, known colloquially as “summer slide,” worth the price? Do the physical and emotional needs of children and adolescents stack up against their cognitive needs?
Lindsay Harris, an assistant professor in the NIU Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations, thinks so.
“Kids need time to be kids,” Harris says, “and this is from a person who would’ve gone to school year-round. I loved school. But I have taught students who hated being there.”
“I’m a former high school teacher. Teachers are on stage for five hours a day, and before tomorrow, they have to grade everything their students handed in today and plan five more hours,” she says. “I taught in New York City at a really struggling school. For me, and for a lot of the teachers I knew, summer vacation was the only thing standing between us and burnout.”
Strangely, some of her educational psychology undergrads – recent alums of the K-12 system – aren’t so sympathetic.
During a class discussion, they told Harris that longer school years would keep kids off the street and out of trouble, boost the competitiveness of American students versus those from Asia or Western Europe and prepare children and teens for the 12-month cycle of the “real world.”
Malecki appreciates the summertime benefits of more family time and allowing “kids to unplug from school – although they plug in more – and refresh.”
Usually measured as a decline in grade-level equivalency, the summer slide consumes anywhere between one month and three months of what was learned in the previous year. The greatest losses are seen in math computation and spelling, Harris says, adding that most students can catch up within the first few weeks of the new school year.
What troubles teachers is that students of lower socioeconomic status tend to experience the greatest drops.
“That’s presumably because more-affluent kids get more enrichment activities over the summer: more opportunities to read, more visits to museums, more educational vacations,” Harris says. “They never check out that part of their brain that’s engaged during school.”
She points to a recent study comparing the reading attainment of students who begin at average levels of performance and those high-achievers in the top 2 percent of their classes.
Over the academic year, Harris says, the top learners improved at a slow-but-steady pace while the average group recorded big leaps. When summer arrived, however, the average group stopped making progress altogether while the top group continued to climb.
“For good students, more summer break might be a good thing,” she says. “They can pursue their interests.”
Conversely, Malecki cites research which holds that most students are equals in their pace of acquiring knowledge.
“If students are getting high-quality instruction, then all kids – kids with disabilities, kids at risk, kids not at risk – generally show the same rate of learning,” she says. “But if you’re behind, you need more-intensive intervention. You have to learn at a faster or steeper rate to close the gap. We used to say, ‘Slower and lower,’ but that’s actually the worst thing you can do. You’re just going to widen the gap.”
Harris and Malecki both shake their heads at the conventional concept of summer school, another time-honored but not-so-beloved American tradition.
“Sit at your desk. Face forward. Drill-and-kill. It’s a punishment,” Malecki says. “They hate school even more.”
“We’re sentencing a student who isn’t succeeding in school to go to school more? That could backfire. More of something that’s broken is not necessarily a good thing,” Harris adds. “If there was an easy answer to this, we would’ve hit upon it already.”
But better ideas exist, they say.
One study shows that allowing students to pick out a dozen books before they went home for the summer “almost completely erased the summer slide,” Harris says. “In the control group that was not allowed to pick out their own books, there were no benefits.”
Meanwhile, she is encouraged by a pilot investigation where researchers are conducting “no-stakes, nothing-on-the-line” testing of students during the summer.
“Being tested on material makes you less likely to forget that material than if you just study it,” she says. “But there are not testing situations over the summer.”
GRE maker Educational Testing Service is looking into ways to intermittently test students during the summer, she adds.
Summer activities, and even less-expensive road trips, also can provide a brain boost: “It’s about creating enriching environments,” Malecki says.
“Even if you’re just going up to the Wisconsin Dells, you’re learning about different formations in nature and science. You’re learning about culture and history. You’re spending time with your parents in the car, and we know that just hearing more-advanced vocabulary creates positive academic outcomes,” she adds.
“If we make sure those experiences include some fun, and some more-natural learning opportunities, we can stop the summer slide and think more positively about school in general.”
Parents must take the lead, Harris says.
“In the environment where I taught in the South Bronx, a lot of my students had very caring parents, and what they did as caring parents was to not let their kids leave the apartment because they were in a very dangerous neighborhood. The downside was no exercise,” she says.
“Exercise has as many benefits for cognition as does sitting at a desk,” she adds. “If kids spend their summers running around in the woods, then that is healthy.”
Consequently, she’s a fan of park districts.
“Learning doesn’t only happen in a classroom,” she says. “I live in Chicago, and we have a wonderful parks department here. For a relatively inexpensive cost, my daughter this summer is going to sports camp, gymnastics camp and swimming lessons.”
The best news about summer slide is that the majority of young people are ready to hit the books again when school resumes each fall.
“In general, most kids are ready to plug back in. They’re ready to see their friends again,” Malecki says. “Kids crave routine, so they’re ready to have that structure back in their lives.”