BY HARRIS COOPER
During those “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer” that will soon be upon us, America’s school children should not be too lazy or they may forget what they have just learned.
Early in the 20th century, school calendars were designed to fit the needs of the particular community. In agricultural areas, it was not unusual for children to attend school for only five or six months, leaving them free to participate in the spring planting and fall harvest. During the same era, some urban schools operated on 11- or 12-month schedules.
As the mobility of families increased, so did pressure for a standardized curriculum and school calendar. But the school calendar, which became dominant when 85 percent of Americans were involved in agriculture, has not changed with the times.
There is growing concern about the summer vacation’s possible negative impact on learning. Many educators argue that children learn best when instruction is continuous. The long summer vacation disrupts the rhythm of instruction, leads to forgetting, and requires time be spent reviewing old material when students return to school in fall.
Research evidence bears out these concerns. A group of colleagues and I conducted a review of 39 studies and it confirmed that, on average, achievement test scores declined between spring and fall, and the loss was more pronounced for math than reading. The reason is simple: children’s out-of-school environments provide more opportunities to practice reading skills than math.
Also, research indicates that the impact can differ based on a child’s economic background. All students, regardless of economic status, lost roughly equal amounts of math skills over summer. However, substantial differences were found for reading. On some measures, middle class children showed gains in reading achievement, particular word recognition scores, over summer. Low-wealth children showed losses.
In addition, while research evidence is scarce, educators argue that the long summer break can have a greater negative effect on the learning of children with special educational needs. The long break also can add an extra burden for children who do not speak English at home. Not only might they have to relearn academic material, they also must reacquaint themselves with the language of instruction.
Until the school calendar changes, parents will struggle to piece together enjoyable, as well as educational, summer experiences for their children. Here are some tips for how you can help your children stay sharp during the long summer break:
1. Consider summer school. Summer programs are not just for children who are having difficulty in school. Many programs provide enrichment activities. Look into math enrichment because there is less opportunity to practice math out of school. Other programs for junior high and high school students provide required coursework so they can move ahead more quickly or free up time in their regular-year schedules. If your child does have an academic weakness, summer is the perfect time to help strengthen it.
2. Look for academic-related activities in your community. Your local library probably has a summer-long reading program for emerging and beginning readers. Local museums also may run one-time or continuing events. Zoos are fun places for learning, and local businesses and factories may provide educational tours.
3. Plan your summer trip with an educational theme. When deciding where your family might go on vacation, think about what educational benefits might be available. For example, if you are headed to a national park, take advantage of ranger-led geological or historical tours. Have your child read a book about where you are going before you leave. If you are still thinking about where to vacation, find out what your child will be studying in the coming school year and visit a related site.
4. Talk to a teacher in your child’s next grade. Find out what books your child might read over summer to be prepared for the coming year. If your child is an emerging or beginning reader, ask the teacher to suggest books you can read to and with them. Ask what the content of the math curriculum will be and then visit a local teachers’ supply store to grab some aids.
Academic-related activities over summer should not last all-day, every day, but neither should down-time. Parents should not let summer turn into a cartoon and video game marathon for their kids. Children are learning all the time, even during the hazy, but perhaps not so lazy, days of summer.
Harris Cooper is professor of psychology and director of the Program in Education at Duke University.