What should America do about the summer slide?


Michelle Budge, Deseret News

School’s out for summer — but the learning hasn’t ended in the Gannaway home. 

Jenny Gannaway, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mom, keeps her four children disciplined during the summer months. In the morning, after breakfast, the eldest, age 11, is required to do online studies via Khan Academy, Brain Quest workbooks, piano and Duolingo Spanish lessons; Gannaway’s 9-year-old follows the same regimen. 

Her 6-year-old, however, has an “easier schedule,” said Gannaway and, every day, she reads with her 4-year-old. 

“I just don’t want them to lose what they’ve learned from the previous year,” said Gannaway, referring to a phenomenon known as the summer slide or summer learning loss.

Over extended school breaks — like summer of the COVID-19-related shutdown — many children lose some of the gains they made during the academic year. Generally speaking, math skills take a bigger hit than literacy, and children from low-income families are thought to be disproportionately impacted by the summer slide. 

While researchers increasingly say that the phenomenon is poorly understood, most experts — and the public — agree that policy solutions are needed to ensure that all children have safe and enriching experiences when school is out.

But what should those experiences look like?

“It is easy to focus on academics because that’s what we can measure easily,” said Megan Kuhfeld, a senior research scientist with the Northwest Evaluation Association, a nonprofit that uses assessment methods to help educators improve instruction. “We can’t very easily measure independence and joy and some of the other things that are related to summer — those often go undervalued.”

Stopping the slide

Gannaway holds a degree in elementary education and was a teacher before she had kids. So the summer programming she does with her children at home is specifically targeted to prevent summer slide.

Interventions like Gannaway’s can stop summer learning loss, and lead to gains, giving children a leg-up for the year ahead, said Ben Trentelman, executive director of the Utah Afterschool Network, pointing to his organization’s participation in a summer literacy initiative with the United Way of Salt Lake.

The program focused specifically on youth literacy rates to ensure that children were reading on the appropriate level by third grade; the initiative took place in Granite School District. Children who participated in that initiative had less summer slide than those who did not, Trentelman said.

“We were able to see that kids that participated in that summer learning initiative were able to remain proficient at the beginning of the next school year or to be able to test higher than they did at the end of the school year,” said Trentelman. “And that came from intentionally designed reading programs that were accessible to those kids throughout the summer.”

But the results, however encouraging, illuminate a problem — not all children have access to high-quality summer programs.

‘The most unequal time’

Summer is “the most unequal time in all of education,” said Aaron Philip Dworkin, chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association. “In America, we (have) education for all children during the school year, but in the summer, we don’t.”

Finding quality summer programs for children and paying for those experiences, he added, “has become very Darwinian.” 

Some families — like the Gannaways — have the means to keep their children at home and provide rich, meaningful experiences. Not only does Gannaway keep her children academically stimulated during the summer, she has her brood doing daily exercises: their routine includes jumping jacks, pushups and a short run. 

“I taught them burpees today,” Gannaway said, referring to the part pushup, part leap move. 

Additionally, each week Gannaway and her children check out books from the library and take a field trip that aligns with the weekly educational theme. “It keeps them using their brain and learning in different ways,” said Gannaway, who added that when the family is on vacation, they take a break from the structured schedule. 

Leveling the playing field

While affordable and accessible summer programs for all of our nation’s children remain the exception and not the norm, COVID-19-related learning loss could shift the paradigm.

“The conversation has changed over the last couple of years,” said Trentelman.

Though the issue of learning loss related to school closures isn’t new, of course, the slide associated with COVID brought the issue to the forefront. Now there is federal funding that can be used to help kids who were impacted by COVID-related closures to catch up. But if that funding is necessary — and available — to help with COVID-related learning loss, it also points towards the need for broader year-round policy solutions. 

Polling suggests that a majority of Americans would get behind policy solutions — a survey conducted by America after 3PM found that 87% of respondents support increased public funding for afterschool programs. 

“Summer programming shouldn’t be like ‘nice to have’ it should be ‘need to have,’” said Dworkin. “If you add up all the three months, every year between kindergarten through eighth grade, that’s four years for educational opportunities that you can give different kids.”

‘Kids need everything’

However, year-round schooling isn’t necessarily the answer.

Ideally, summer programming combines the emphasis of camps — which use outdoors and enrichment activities to focus on skills like team building, community building and leadership development — with some academics.

“It can’t only be math and reading with no art and music and fitness. And it can’t be all swimming and no math and reading,” Dworkin said. “Kids need everything.”

He pointed to Boston as an example of a place that uses public resources to get summer right. There, Boston public schools partner with nonprofits and different community organizations to create a wide variety of programs that are both free and stimulating.

It’s also critical for summer learning initiatives to not only be accessible and affordable for families but “consistently available,” said Trentelman, who pointed to the irregular hours and short duration of many camps as a problem. While many parents end up patching together different enrichment opportunities, children need a “cohesive summer experience,” said Trentelman, who called for both increased public support for programs as well as better conditions for the people who staff such summer programs.

Though COVID-19 emergency funds have led to the creation of numerous affordable programs — which are among the 60,000 programs listed on the National Summer Learning Association’s website — these short term solutions are not enough, said Dworkin.

“There’s so much happening. We want that to continue,” he said. “We don’t want it to be an emergency response but (rather) something that’s built into the fabric of the education system.”