THE BLOG
07/10/2014 03:27 pm ET | Updated Sep 09, 2014

In Order for Our Kids to Keep Learning, We Need to Keep Learning Too

How do we act on new information, when our systems and structures have been built on a foundation of incomplete or outdated information? How do we adjust what we've built in order to accommodate what we've learned?

It's a question faced by advocates for any issue -- and it's one that's more prevalent now than ever in the world of education, as we discover more and more about how young people learn, and what resources they need in order to succeed.

To ensure that each child gets the opportunity that he or she deserves, we need the courage to look at our education infrastructure, acknowledge where it can be improved, and take swift and strong action to implement change. Here's one way we're doing that in California.

Our state spends more money on afterschool education programs than all other 49 states combined. But right now, our more than $700 million investment primarily supports afterschool programs during the school year, because California's system was designed before we realized that "summer vacation" is actually one of the biggest contributors to the vast achievement gap that exists between kids from low-income families and their higher-income peers.

Summer break, which was designed during an agricultural era when children needed to work in the fields during those months, has become a beloved American tradition. It has flourished in the two centuries (or so) since it began here, and many experts came to believe the myth that summer vacations were beneficial for kids because children need a "fully-charged battery" in order to learn.

In fact, research now shows it's the exact opposite. The truth is that kids need to keep learning in order to keep their battery charged, not the other way around.

Yes, during the summer months many children take a break from the classroom, but they do so without ever taking a break from learning or growing. Kids from families with enough resources still experience tremendous emotional and intellectual growth during summer vacation, thanks to new experiences.

Growth comes from going new places, meeting new people, eating new foods and trying new things. It comes from trips to museums, or zoos, or concerts, or parades. It comes from taking lessons, joining leagues, and attending camps. It comes from discussing their adventures and comparing discoveries with each other.

A child from a low-income family, or a family that otherwise lacks access to these experiences, is often forced to take a break from learning over the summer.

That child's internal battery doesn't get recharged. In fact, recent studies show it becomes even more depleted, and it can take months out of each new school year just to get a student from a low-income family back to where he or she had been before the previous school year ended.

It's called "summer learning loss" and it hits low-income kids the hardest.

That's why advocates, experts and legislators are teaming up to update our laws and offer greater support for the programs that we now know might make the most difference of all; the ones that take place during summer.

More and more people within the world of education and child advocacy are starting to understand this phenomenon, and we're seeing rapid movement away from traditional remedial summer programs (which can actually feel like punishment for the kids who need the most help) and towards programs that aim to give those kids the enriching experiences they actually need -- to catch up, and to keep up.

But educators are hitting the same wall that so many parents do. It's great that we want to provide these opportunities, but where do we get the resources? The federal government does not have a dedicated funding stream for summer learning programs, and most states don't either.

Here in California, decisions about how to allocate school funding have recently been given to local districts, through a policy called the Local Control Funding Formula. But even the districts and communities that understand the dire need for summer programs are still left with difficult choices about how much they can afford to provide, if any at all.

California's SB1221, authored by State Senator Loni Hancock (D-9) and co-sponsored by Partnership for Children and Youth and the California Department of Education, seeks to alleviate this challenge. The measure proposes to prioritize funding from a portion of our afterschool dollars for schools that operate academic enrichment programs all year long; after school, during the school year, and over the summertime. We need to continue to shift our focus to "year-round" learning in order to provide for all kids.

So much of the work that lies ahead of us is similar to this. Our old understanding of what kids need has built a system that has left a giant achievement gap between kids from families with fewer resources and their peers who don't face those challenges.

We need to close that gap. And we, as advocates, need to be willing to learn new things -- in order to give each child the chance to do the same.