Education Policy Must Tackle Summer Learning Loss

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calls it “devastating.”  Michelle Obama is fighting it with the "Let’s Read. Let’s Move.” initiative. Both of these policy leaders are seeking to tackle summer learning loss — a heavily researched phenomenon which is loosely defined as “the loss in academic skills and knowledge over the course of summer vacation.”  

The strategy to combat learning loss seems to be “more school.” Still, this strategy only makes students resent the process of learning as meaningless assignments are forced upon them. Students should be encouraged to realize that learning can happen outside of school and to pursue what they’re interested in through the process of inquiry. At the same time, they should be guided to focus on skills like critical thinking, collaboration, and information filtering, which are not easily graded in typical summative assessments such as end-of-unit tests.

Many studies on this subject come to their conclusions by having students take a standardized test at the end of the school year and then take the same test a couple of months later at the start of the next school year. Most perform better on the first test.

If you have been using relevant skills continuously for the past nine or 10 months, you’re going to be quicker, more efficient, and more knowledgeable about what is required for that particular test. These studies erroneously equate learning solely with performance on standardized tests, ignoring the intangible benefits of a summer vacation.

In our technologically-centered world, with Google and Wikipedia at our fingertips, standardized tests filled in on bubble sheets are becoming a thing of the past. Standardized tests do not reflect the nuances of the learning process, and in the 21st century, educators all over the world are stressing the importance of critical thinking, creativity, and authentic learning, skills which don't often show up on test scores.

Learning often occurs when we least expect it — even on summer vacations — and students need breaks, just like everyone else. Summer vacation is a time for play, exploration, and relaxation, and it helps students develop social skills. Summer can also be a time for learning if utilized properly by educators and parents. It is imperative to get educators and parents on board with this idea and encourage them to promote active learning over the break.

Jeff Smink of the Summer Learning Association wrote recently in the New York Times about the effects of the summer vacation on student test scores. He pulls data from the oft-cited studies of the RAND Corporation and Johns Hopkins University, showing that the average American student loses a month of learning each year, forcing them to play catch-up each September. He suggests that this may be due to low-income parents' not being able to supply their children with the same opportunities for summer educational opportunities — at camps, on trips to the museum, and with books — as more affluent parents. This may be true, and while money certainly can help, I think the real issue is environmental and cultural rather than economic. There are millions of students who come from low-income families whose parents insist they put their all into school — and they do. They find ways to learn, because they grew up in environments where it's encouraged and because they want to.

If we are going to give students summer homework, we have to at least make it meaningful. We should let them have a say in what their summer project(s) will consist of and provide (online and/or offline) learning environments for them to check into periodically throughout the summer. Students should be encouraged to keep a blog, posting their thoughts about the books they read, the movies they watched, the videogames they played, and the extracurricular activities they took part in. Or they can write a journal, create a scrapbook of art, or create a video or Prezi. Maybe the kid wants to learn how to build a robot, make a website, or plant a garden. Schools and parents should provide these opportunities. Give students options for summer projects and some of them might actually enjoy the process, retaining and refining skills while learning something about themselves along the way.

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