Summer is here! I began planning my 8-year-old daughter’s summer break back in February, to ensure that she attends a camp that offers fun and educational activities. I am so glad and relieved that her summer will be full of different experiences, including math, cooking, chemistry, art, dance, and, of course, swimming.
As I was visiting her summer camp this past weekend, I thought of parents who do not have the financial resources to enroll their children in these types of programs. My daughter has grown up with advantages that children from lower-income families do not have. While I’m happy she will have a fun and educational summer, I feel for children who will not. Every child should have access to summer programs that offer activities and experiences that boost their school-year learning. Unfortunately, lower-income students are more likely to be unsupervised during the summer months, and less likely to have access to a summer program that provides constructive learning activities. Without the money to enroll their children in enriching summer programs, and with many school resources “turned off” during the season, these students are left without options. This may contribute to the learning loss that has been observed among lower-income students during the summer break.
Research suggests that this so-called “summer slide” expands the educational gap between lower- and higher-income students. While the gap remains relatively constant during the school year, it widens during the summer. Although all students lose some math skills over the summer, lower-income students are more likely to lose reading and spelling skills than higher-income students. Reading and spelling skills are essential for success in multiple other subjects. Unfortunately, summer losses accumulate over the years. By fifth grade, summer learning losses can leave lower-income students up to three years behind their higher-income peers.
Last year, the Administration for Children and Families, Office of Child Care, launched the new National Center on Afterschool and Summer Enrichment (NCASE). The goal of the center is to make sure that lower-income children have increased access to high-quality after-school and summer learning experiences that will contribute to their academic achievement. The National Summer Association (NSA) also advocates for summer learning as a way to reduce the achievement gap, and provides technical assistance and supports to programs serving low-income students to increase their quality. These efforts should be applauded.
However, as research shows and these agencies acknowledge, increased access is not the finish-line. The quality of summer learning programs is also important. Children benefit most when a program is small and individualized to their needs, consistently allocates time for the same learning experience (e.g., math), and teachers are experienced, caring, trained, and have the resources to deliver the programs effectively.
These are meaningful efforts to help lower-income children access summer learning programs, but they must be continually supported if they are to succeed. Educational inequality doesn’t only take root during the school year. We must fight it in the months between classes as well.
Selma Caal, Research Scientist