Summer break widens achievement gap

Summer break may be welcomed by children but research shows that it contributes greatly to the achievement gap between students of different backgrounds:

Consider, first, the evidence for the summer fade effect. Taken together, a variety of studies indicate that students’ academic skills atrophy during the summer months by an amount equivalent to what they learn in a third of a school year, according to a review by Harris Cooper, a professor of education at Duke University, and several co-authors.

This deterioration, furthermore, varies substantially by income and race, and its impact persists even past childhood. Barbara Heyns, a sociologist at New York University who studied Atlanta schoolchildren in the late 1970s, found that although academic gains during the school year were not substantially correlated with income, summer decline was.

Subsequent studies have replicated the finding. Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle and Linda Olson of Johns Hopkins University, for example, found that the summer fade can largely explain why the gap in skills between children on either side of the socioeconomic divide widens as students progress through elementary school. Children from all backgrounds learn at similar rates during the school year, but each summer students of high socioeconomic status continue to learn while those of low socioeconomic status fall behind.

The impact is felt even years later. The learning differences that begin in grade school “substantially account” for differences by socioeconomic status in high-school graduation rates and in four-year college attendance, Alexander and his co-authors report.

This article adds some more information:

Many low-income kids actually make great progress in school from August to June, only to see much of it wiped away by an idle summer, he says. “We need to get over ourselves a little bit over our idyllic view of what summer is and what it’s supposed to be,” he adds.

A 2007 study by Johns Hopkins University researchers found that by the time students enter high school, “summer learning loss” accounts for roughly two-thirds of the nation’s achievement gap in reading between poor and middle-class students.

If the evidence is clear, how long until more districts go to reduced summer breaks or year-round school? Overcoming the culture of summer break could be difficult to do. Also, might we have a situation where wealthier districts continue summer break while less well-off districts try to combat this summer achievement decline?

Quick Review: Fall

With classes starting today, I thought I would make the argument that Fall (loosely defined here as late August to late November) is the best season of the year. Here are the reasons:

1. School starts. I’ve always enjoyed school. Now as a professor, it feels good to get back into the classroom and see energetic students again. There is always lots to do. The academic calendar has started anew.

2. The weather improves. I’m not a big fan of really hot summer weather and Chicago has been above normal hot this year. I enjoy the cool edge on the breeze. Today’s weather of about 77 degrees with sunny skies was perfect for the first day of school. And I can’t wait for the chillier days when it feels good to sit inside and read but is still pleasant enough outside to not need a heavy coat.

3. The sports world picks up. After a stretch with only baseball on the air, football, basketball, and hockey start. I enjoy watching both the professional and collegiate level and by October, there is quite a variety of action.

4. Special days. Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer (and summer break), my birthday rolls around, and I enjoy looking forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I know others would disagree with me but I’m planning to enjoy the next few months.

Changing dumpsters into swimming pools

In New York City, officials are hosting a summer program that includes swimming pools made out of dumpsters.

This is the kind of creative thinking that many cities could benefit from. Of course, it only sounds like there are a few of these pools being run by the city and they are each quite small. However, it is a clever reuse of a common object to bring some joy into summer life in the city. And the designer suggests they are cheap to put together.

Summer heat and society

The heat of the summer is often equated with positive things: sun, outdoor activities, the beach, and driving with the windows open or convertible top down.

But the heat can also cause and expose issues in a society. In Russia, there has been record heat and a staggering number of deaths:

On Monday, Moscow health authorities announced that the number of deaths each day in the capital had nearly doubled to 700 as most of central Russia entered the seventh week of a heat wave. The high temperatures, hovering around 100 degrees, have destroyed 30% of the nation’s grain crops and triggered massive peat bog and forest fires that alone have killed more than 50 people and devastated dozens of villages.

Andrei Seltsovsky, chief of Moscow’s health department, said the city’s morgues were filled almost to capacity, with 1,300 of the 1,500 slots taken. He suggested that residents, instead of following Russian Orthodox tradition of holding burials on the third day after death, bury loved ones sooner.

This sort of event is not isolated to Moscow. Something similar happened in Chicago in 1995. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote about the summer in the book Heat Wave: Social Autopsy of a Disaster in Chicago. In an interview, Klinenberg discussed the book. There were some controversy over the “official death count.” Cook County’s chief medical examiner reported 465 deaths related to the heat for the hottest week but the numbers were disputed by Mayor Daley.

Additionally, the death rates differed by race:

The actual death tolls for African Americans and whites were almost identical, but those numbers are misleading. There are far more elderly whites than elderly African Americans in Chicago, and when the Chicago Public Health Department considered the age differences, they found that the black/white mortality ratio was 1.5 to 1. Another surprising fact that emerged is that Latinos, who represent about 25 percent of the city population and are disproportionately poor and sick, accounted for only 2 percent of the heat-related deaths.

So heat can help expose the disadvantaged in society, those who have no or little access to air conditioning, are often alone, and have no one to check in on them. Since that summer in Chicago, the city has opened “cooling centers” (which are available now all over the state of Illinois) to provide a place for those who don’t have other options. Measures like these have cut down on heat-related deaths in Chicago – it remains to be seen what Moscow will do to help with this current and future heat waves.

Ending summer vacation

Time makes an argument for ending the typical American summer vacation from school. Numerous studies indicate that children lose ground during the summer and low-income students lose a lot of ground:

And what starts as a hiccup in a 6-year-old’s education can be a crisis by the time that child reaches high school. A major study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University concluded that while students made similar progress during the school year, regardless of economic status, the better-off kids held steady or continued to advance during the summer — while disadvantaged students fell back. By the end of grammar school, low-income students had fallen nearly three grade levels behind. By ninth grade, roughly two-thirds of the learning gap separating income groups could be blamed on summer learning loss.
The article also mentions the romanticism linked with summer vacation: trips, outdoor activity, freedom. This seems particularly crucial for American teenagerdom when teenagers get a first taste of being away from their parents. Even though I really liked school, I did enjoy summer vacation and all the options that were available to me (which not everyone has).
Would it be too difficult to split the summer vacation into two sections of about a month or a month and a half long? This seems like a reasonable compromise: some time off for everyone, shorter gaps for students to lose knowledge.