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Ending Summer Learning Loss: Can It Be the Key to True Education Reform?

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As the summer approaches and the 2012-2013 academic year comes to a close for millions of K-12 students, the debate over how to improve public education continues. Research dating back to the 1970s by New York University sociologist Barbara Heyns reflected that low-income students lose approximately 3 months of grade-level equivalency during summer breaks from school. Recent studies have only reinforced the notion of summer learning loss and highlight that middle-income students lose about one month of grade-level equivalency over the summer. And while school system governance, school choice and school closings have dominated recent discussions about school reform, the beginning of summer break is a perfect time to highlight the impact summer learning loss has on efforts to close achievement gaps.

As a child growing up in New Jersey, my family didn't emphasize summer reading during school breaks. To many of my friends and family members, summer learning was confined to summer school and summer school was for "other kids." To my friends, summer learning was solely for those who needed remediation. We never envisioned that summer enrichment programs were developed to help students maintain their current academic standing or build upon the knowledge gained from the previous school year. By the 6th grade, I was only reading on a 3rd grade level. Unbeknownst to my parents and I, while we dismissed the importance of continued summer study, we also failed to lay the necessary foundation in reading I would eventually need.

Summer learning loss affects more than just the student. The impact of summer learning loss on educators tasked with replenishing what was lost during the school break often goes unnoticed. For many educators, the first weeks of the new academic year are spent reintroducing foundational skills necessary for the new curriculum. The impact is also felt by the schools that dedicate resources to students [from a feeder school] who struggle to catch up with those fully prepared for the new school year's information. In a time when schools are cutting budgets, can we afford to accept losing 30% of what we invest during the school year?

The answers to summer learning loss vary based on the needs of each student. For those students who finish the year behind their peers, the summer can be used to catch up. For those students who finish on par with their peers, the summer can help retain that information or even help push the student ahead of his or her peers.

The good news is that esteemed institutions like NASA, John Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth and the Smithsonian Institute have created challenging summer programs for K-12 students. Even struggling school districts have government-sponsored summer reading or STEM learning programs for students at different levels. The tragedy is that many of those government-sponsored programs go under-enrolled. Under-enrollment is oftentimes a byproduct of lack of information on available programs by parents. Other reasons for under-enrollment can be a parent's lack of exposure to the positive impact of summer programs or negative impact of summer idleness. Raising awareness of summer programs oftentimes begins with word of mouth amongst concerned parents engaging with one another. But to truly reach those whose children need summer support the most, awareness should include non-traditional means like a social media campaign.

More strict advocates for reducing summer learning loss have pushed for policies like a longer school year. Though the debate on its impact continues, the notion of a longer school year has been adopted in other countries and, with the support of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, is being piloted in 40 schools in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee. As an Education Volunteer with the Peace Corps in South Africa, I served in schools with students attending year-round. And though a longer school year would reduce the time students are away from a structured setting, the justification for the additional fiscal burden has yet to be made to the satisfaction of those with the power to make change. Making the case for a longer school years becomes even more difficult when districts struggle to fully utilize the time and resources they have currently.

Achievement gaps of two and three grade levels separate struggling districts from high performing ones. As school districts debate how to close achievement gaps, a point of agreement is that "every lesson, every day, every year counts." And in a time when every bit counts, summer learning programs can be the difference between the academic performance of a struggling district and a high performing district. Public education is the only industry that willingly and knowingly accepts a 30% loss in their investment each year. As parents to two pre-schoolers, my wife and I recognize the importance of summer learning loss and enrolled our children in a montessori summer camp. Our children's futures are too valuable, and the return on investments in public education too important, to not re-examine our emphasis on stemming the tide of summer learning loss.