With summer break rounding the halfway mark toward a new school year, educators will find that not every pupil forgot the previous year's lessons during the time off. Experts believe summer learning loss is a bit more nuanced and doesn't impact every student the same way.
“Some students have gains. There’s not a set number for everyone,” Rebecca Lavinson, policy associate with the nonprofit American Youth Policy Forum in Washington, D.C., told Education Dive. Lavinson suggests that any outreach from educators — whether at the start of summer, ideally, or later — is helpful.
“The sooner you can get materials out there, engage with students, get them resources they need, and get them participating in academic activities, the better,” she said.
If schools haven’t set up a summer program yet, experts say there is still time to offer students suggestions that are doable for all families in terms of time and financial demands. If summer is over, assessing students quickly when they return — looking at reading levels, for example — will be key to finding where they are now in terms of skills, and determining how to get them back on track if any loss has occurred.
Summer not over? Send texts, suggest visiting libraries
While nothing replaces a well-drawn summer learning plan put in place prior to school ending in the spring, educators can help prep students and parents with expectations and even some early materials over the break.
Encouraging students to visit a library and spend a bit of their break reading is a very helpful idea, notes Harris Cooper, a professor in Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University’s in Durham, North Carolina.
“A teacher can reach out to the students who are going to be in his or her class with maybe suggested reading, including books they’re going to read for the class, so they can get a head start on what is often a time-consuming activity for kids,” Harris said.
Harris co-authored a widely sourced meta-analysis on summer learning loss, published in 1996. In the review, Harris and researchers found summer learning loss increased as students went up in grade level, and that opportunities and access to materials could impact subjects, as well as the learning students lost.
Harris notes that student performance is more likely to slip in mathematics, but that educators can suggest ways to focus on math over the summer, such as calculating winning percentages if they’re in a summer sports league.
“Reading is more naturally embedded in a child’s environment,” Harris said. “That’s less so with mathematics. All kids will lose math, because math is not something they will run into on a regular basis, so it has to be more intentional.”
Make the ideas equitable
As educators make suggestions, they should keep in mind that getting access to educational material during the summer can be a stressful activity, as some students have more opportunities to travel than others — even to the local library.
As money and time are resources not shared equally among families, educators may want to send the material they want students to read to their homes — even digitally, over email, rather than listing book titles.
“Be mindful of time and financial affordability,” Lavinson said. “Some activities can be mailed to the home or sent via email so students who don’t have access don’t have to impose on parents to take them certain places.”
Text messages, sent to parents of elementary school children, may also be impactful, detailed in a study by researchers at Brown University. The study focused on a summer pilot program held in 2015 in which text messages about summer learning and literacy were sent to 182 families with children in two elementary charter schools in Rhode Island. Parents received reminders, ideas and notes of support, encouraging them to have their children take part in "literacy activities,” wrote the researchers, who found some results encouraging for older students.
“We find compelling evidence that the positive impact of the text messaging intervention was concentrated among students in the upper elementary grade levels,” they wrote.
Megan Kuhfeld, a research scientist with the Collaborative for Student Growth at NWEA, a nonprofit assessment organization, also notes that when suggesting learning resources, educators should be mindful that students may have different levels of access to materials over the summer.
“Existing research demonstrated that low-income families are less likely than middle- or high-income families to have educational resources in the home and to be able to afford enriching summer activities,” she said in an interview, pointing to a 2018 report from the U.S. Department of Education. “Therefore, providing resources free to students is one way to try to reduce inequality in summer learning loss.”
Kuhfeld said a “promising approach,” would be to keep school libraries open during the summer months, providing continued access to reading and educational materials. That is one direction, she points out, that two U.S. Senators, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, proposed in 2018 through the Summer Learning and Meals Act.
School started? Assess students where they are
Once school has started, David Quinn, assistant professor of education policy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, said educators should not assume every pupil has experienced a summer slide in learning — or the same loss.
Instead, Quinn notes that many students actually plateau over the summer and stay the same. Because the impact can be different for each student, and even for each school district, Quinn suggests schools and educators take a read on where they are when classes start again in the fall.
“The best general advice at the beginning of the school year is to diagnose where students are in their reading, understanding, decoding levels and fluency,” he said. “Then tailor students into reading groups with others who have similar skills and needs, and reassess after some period of time.”