Summer Slide

My wife and I made the mistake of grabbing lunch at a Chick-fil-a around lunch time last week.  I had done this before on several occasions, and while always quite busy, it had not warranted not returning.

As we walked in, we were overwhelmed by the chaos of a restaurant full of kids and parents.  I had forgotten how crowded and loud Chick-Fil-A could be when school is out for the summer.  Inside, we were soon surrounded by hungry children and their parents.  SUV after SUV seemed to be pulling up and dumping out children dressed in clothes from camps, sports, activities, etc.

In sitting amongst this chaos, we noticed a trend in the conversations.  The kids were talking about the camps or activities they had just attended or had scheduled later.  Their parents were discussing tutoring and various lessons their children were taking.   It was overwhelming seeing and hearing the diverse range of activities available to kids during the summer. It seemed like these families were a microcosm of the over planned, over stressed life that many adults lead.

And then I considered the kids who went to my wife’s school and how different their summer would be. The feelings must have shown on my face, as my wife asked what was wrong.  My answer brought a knowing acknowledgement and tacit understanding for the sadness on my face.  The kids in my wife’s old school would have a very different summer.

In examining the greatest difference between schools serving affluent and low-income, many fail to consider the impact of summer vacation.  For many of us, summer vacation meant swim team, sports camp, and trips to the library (all staples of my youth).  For low-income kids, it often means watching TV, hanging out in tough neighborhoods, and waiting for summer to end.

While I had opportunities to go on vacation or to museums, read books and stimulate learning through growing a garden, kids from low-income backgrounds often have minimal access to book or other educational stimulation.   Compounding this desperate situation is the fact that many children rely on school to provide breakfast and lunch during the school year.  In fact, my wife had several students that went to the office each Friday to get packs of food to get them through the weekend.   How do these families overcome this burden during the summer?

So is it any surprise that low-income kids can lose the equivalent of 3 months of reading instruction over the summer while more affluent children stay constant or actually show growth?  Studies have shown that while all kids lose math skills (equivalent to a month of instruction), low-income kids lose nearly one-third of a grade level in reading as compared to their peers (1).   Another study finds that by the end of 8th grade, disadvantaged students are three grades behind their more affluent peers with nearly two thirds of the disadvantage due to summer vacation differences (2).

This research implies that the kids my wife received last year were over a year behind compared to their peers.  Looking at their baseline levels, the research seems  accurate to where most of her kids were.   Those same kids can be expected to lose 3 months of instruction before 5th grade begins next fall.  Yet, many administrators and politicians will tell you that kids need to be on grade level or their teacher is failing them.  But, during the school year, kids from affluent and disadvantage backgrounds grow at a similar rates (2). The data implies that teachers who teach low-income kids are paying the price for years of summer deficits that invariably contribute to reduced growth during the school year.

In the quest to find scapegoats, summer vacation is rarely pointed too.


Simple.  We as Americans love summer vacation.  It is ingrained in our perceived youth and highlighted throughout our culture.  It is also cheaper for government to have the time off rather than pay for the increase in resources necessary for summer instruction.  Also, don’t forget political efforts to keep the status quo, (if you have any doubt, consider that several states have mandatory end/start of school dates to protect the vacation industries).

So what is the answer?

It may in fact be very simple: give more summer educational opportunities to disadvantaged kids.  This does not even mean putting them in expensive camps or activities, although those won’t hurt either (3, 4, 5).

A program called Durham READS found great success last year by sending kids books on their favorite subjects and on their grade levels (6).  These are likely homes that have few books or educational stimulation opportunities.  The Harvard study found that the majority of kids (>90%) that read 3 or more books had no major difference between their spring and fall test scores; most remained steady or had growth.  The data suggest if given an opportunity to learn, these kids can stem the losses normally seen in disadvantaged populations, all for the cost of some books during the summer.  A more comprehensive study is planned this summer.

Returning to my conversation with my wife at Chick-Fil-A, I asked her how many of her students would choose to participate in a summer program or continue with school during the summer.  Her answer surprised me, “All of them.”  For her kids, summer is not the idealized versions that we remember.  It is an experience to overcome and survive, hoping for the next school year to begin.  If this isn’t a sign that something needs to change, I don’t know what is.

At least that way, those kids would have something to talk about during lunch at Chick-Fil-A during the summer.

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