In much of Texas, and across the nation, the countdown is officially over. Millions of children are collectively rejoicing, as they celebrate the end of the academic year and the arrival of summertime.
While summer doesn’t officially begin until June 21st, the ‘lazy days’ of summer for K-12 students are categorically underway, much to the chagrin of countless parents as they scramble to find safe and affordable child care or activities to keep youth occupied for the next several months. For some teachers and parents, the much-anticipated break provokes sighs of relief and gleeful anticipation of respite, with the sun-filled months unconstrained by the standard stressors of the school year. Yet, conventional wisdom and decades old research would suggest that such exhalations are unwarranted as concerns over summer learning loss and the temporary absence of the typical resources housed within schools can threaten the academic and social gains students have made.
Much of the concern over summer learning loss stems from well-documented and persistent inequalities in educational outcomes by socioeconomic status (SES) and race/ethnicity, which research has suggested becomes more pronounced during the summer. Indeed, the link between economic standing and learning loss makes logical sense if we consider the deprivation of resources faced by low income students when schools are closed. Likewise, it is instinctual to think that students from middle- and upper-class families possess the financial resources and the cultural capital to engage in pursuits that can benefit students academically, including travel, participation in enrichment experiences, camp attendance, and receiving additional instruction or an academic leg up that scaffolds success when they return to school in the fall. Moreover, the achievement gap between students of color and whites is highly correlated with socioeconomic status, so resources, along with summer losses, would presumably be racialized.
Seminal research in the 1990’s appeared to offer a clear picture consistent with the above; students lost significant ground in mathematics and reading over the summer, with computation skills and spelling suffering the largest declines. On average, students purportedly lost a full month of schooling during the summer break, with the sharpest declines observable as students advanced in age and year in school; when considering mathematics alone, students appear to lose a full two months of schooling. Losses were greater among students from lower SES families for reading, with middle income students losing modest reading comprehension skills, but remaining on grade level or improving for other reading skills; meanwhile, less financially secure students unilaterally lost ground in reading and tended to lose more of it overall. For Black and Hispanic students, who generally post lower academic year gains than their white counterparts, the summer slide was more pronounced, the losses more profound, and the cumulative effect greater given that they would not make up ground as readily as white students when school resumed in the fall. When combined with the disproportionate impact of poverty on students of color, summer learning loss posed a significant threat to the idea that education could serve as the “great equalizer.”
More recent research challenges the summer learning loss mantra that has underpinned the call for year-long instruction, summer school, and other interventions to prevent students from losing ground. While academic progression does indeed slow over the summer months, it does so unevenly and at times unpredictably. Indeed, the largest losses are among students who have made the largest advances academically during the prior school year. Moreover, it now appears as if the most intractable gaps that exist in American educational outcomes, those predicated on SES and race/ethnicity (though the latter has narrowed over the past several decades much more than the former), are relatively entrenched by the time students enter kindergarten; the SES gap widens slightly during the summertime, but the Black-White achievement gap does not appear to increase while students are out of school. Instead, new research reveals that the Black-White achievement gap increases DURING the school year, even narrowing slightly over the summer. To complicate matters further, there was no discernible pattern for the Hispanic-White achievement gap.
So where does this leave us? We should still address the potential for summer to contribute to declines in achievement come fall, especially following the sharp declines in academic achievement and the lower quality of academic instruction experienced by Black and Hispanic students, as well as low SES students, throughout the pandemic. But recent, and nationally representative, assessment data does reveal a far more complicated and nuanced story than initially told by ‘summer slide’ researchers, who studied single cities or conducted meta analyses. Nonetheless, what other data shows, is that summer reading programs hold great promise for raising standardized test scores and that middle class students have more opportunities for growth across academic, socioemotional, and cultural domains. At the very minimum, youth benefit from structure and routine, ongoing exploration, literature-rich environments, and stability. Schools clearly offer these academically- oriented resources, along with many more, including mentoring, social supports, soft skill development, and supplemental social services, which may be harder to access when schools are closed over the summer months. This is particularly true for the most vulnerable populations. The clearest conclusion we can draw, however, is that ongoing data collection on student progress is unmistakably warranted, and more research into “summering” is sorely needed.
Adam D. Powell
President & CEO
Communities In Schools of the Dallas Region