+ Summer Brain Drain Worse for Low-Income Students

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Research tells a nuanced story about summer learning losses:  some learning is lost among certain groups while other groups gain, according to Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post..

Experts at Johns Hopkins, the University of Tennessee and the University of Virginia say most students — regardless of family income or background — lose slightly more than two month of the math computational skills they learned last year.

But in reading, low-income students lose two and a half months while middle-class students make slight gains. 

All of this suggests the obvious, says Strauss: children lose math ability when they don’t use it, and middle-class  students read more than those who don’t have a lot of books at home or who don’t get to hone skills in summer reading clubs.

We would think that losing two month of math skills would require two months to make it up.  But educators think it’s not so simple.

When it comes to reading, the experts think, some kids make progress not only because they read more.

“Life experiences other than reading can lead to advantages in reading comprehension,” says Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia, who is an expert in cognition and the application of cognitive principles to K-12 education.

“If you don’t have a reading problem or a problem with decoding… your ability to read a passage is dependent on having some relevant background knowledge,” he says.

So middle-class kids who go to camp, who take trips and visit museums, historical sites, parks, botanical gardens and planetariums can bring a lot more understanding and life experience to their reading passages the following year.

The lack of resources for poor children in the summer has great consequences, say educators.

“If we can eliminate the summer gap, we can close the longstanding achievement gap between richer and poorer kids,” says Richard Allington, of the University of Tennessee and past president of the International Reading Association.

“Basically, even poor kids grow reading skills at about the same rate as middle-class kids when they are in school.  Two-thirds of the achievement gap occurs during the summers, not during the school year.”

The reason students across the socioeconomic spectrum lose ground in math over the summer, says Ron Fairchild, executive director of the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins, is in part that schools, libraries and nonprofit organizations also tend to place more emphasis on summer reading than on mathematics.

Another factor in the loss of math skills is thought to be the nature of the subject: facts and knowledge based on specific procedures are easier to forget than concepts.

But Willingham says it is also true that the nature of human memory means that students can re-learn very quickly.  “Someone who loses 2 1/2 months of skills doesn’t need 2 1/2 months to relearn it,” he says.

Fairchild’s center promotes quality summer programs for children, especially those who are less affluent.  The Center works with 5,000 programs in all fifty states, aiming to provide academic and cultural enrichment, healthy meals and physical activity — the elements that help students succeed when they return to school.

The healthy meals are not an afterthought.  Research shows that most children gain weight in the summer, an undesired outcome amid concerns about childhood obesity.

So, writes Strauss, if you’ve been telling yourself that your children don’t need to do anything academic during the summer, listen to the experts. 

Think again.

sole source: Washington Post article by Valerie Strauss on June 15, 2009.  www.washingtonpost.com   For more information about the Johns Hopkins Centers for Summer Learning, visit  http://www.summerlearning.org/

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