Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Put The Summer In The School

With the school year well underway, and the leaves turning on the trees outside my window, it is easy to yearn again for summer.  That is exactly what my wife did as we took a late afternoon walk down to the garden to check on our pumpkins.  In that same wistful vein, I’m reminded of some summer reading I’ve been pondering for a while.  At the beginning of August Time Magazine ran a cover feature, “The Case Against Summer Vacation”, written by David Von Drehle.

It began by noting what happens to kids, most especially children from low-income families, during our traditional extended summer break from school.  Von Drehle describes this summer break we’ve been comfortable with for so long “as a luxury we can no longer afford.”   

     “Dull summers take a steep toll, as researchers have been documenting for more than a century.  Deprived of healthy stimulation, millions of low-income kids lose a significant amount of what they learn during the school year.  Call it “summer learning loss,” as the academics do, or “the summer slide,” but by any name summer vacation is among the most pernicious – if least acknowledged – causes of achievement gaps in America’s schools.  Children with access to high-quality experiences keep exercising their minds and bodies at sleepaway camp, on family vacations, in museums and libraries and enrichment classes.  Meanwhile children without resources languish on street corners or in front of glowing screens.  By the time the bell rings on a new school year, the poorer kids have fallen weeks, if not months, behind.  And even well-off American students may be falling behind their peers around the world.”

Von Drehle goes on to describe antidotes to this problem, describing a number of summer enrichment programs especially for low-income kids, and some of the people who make the programs work.

      “As our modern-day reformers strive to civilize summer as an educational resource, the trick is to seize the opportunity without destroying what’s best about the season:  the possibility of fun and freedom and play.”

Von Drehle describes an all-day program in Indianapolis where elementary school kids are “exploring foods and landmarks and cultural traditions…unwittingly doing math as they measure ingredients and learning science as they raise vegetable gardens with plants native to each land.  Fridays are for field trips; to study Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the kids rode buses to the aquarium in Chicago.”  He writes about programs in Baltimore, Cincinnati, Houston, Kansas City, and a very successful program in the Appalachian town of Corbin, Kentucky, led by Karen West. 

     “The entire community of Corbin pitches in.  Restaurants serve hot meals at which students can practice etiquette.  The swimming pool invites kids each Wednesday.  Baptist Regional Medical Center organizes the Long Day of Play to promote health and fitness.  The department of fish and wildlife leads a session on conservation – then takes all the students fishing.  As the kids weigh and measure their catch, they think they’re just trying to win first prize, but West notes that they are also doing a day’s worth of math.  Summer educators like to call this sort of thing “stealth learning.”

     “We have over 30 partners,” West says, and their in-kind contributions nearly match her annual budget of $60,000. “When everyone gives a little, we can do miracles.”  The proof:  students in the Corbin program not only don’t fall behind through the summer; they move ahead.  More than half of the participants improve by a full letter grade or more in both reading and math.”

It seems to me the “trick” in all this is to give up trying to distinguish between the “fun stuff” and the “educational”.  Maybe we should realize that all the physical activity kids get in a summer program is a good thing, that less focus on a rigid curriculum is a good thing, that “fun and freedom and play” needn’t be segregated from learning, but rather incorporated into learning all year round, school or no school.  We compartmentalize learning in so many ways, not the least of which is that somehow “summer learning” must be different from “school-year learning.”   The issue isn’t what kids learn in summer programs that can help them in schools, it is what schools can learn from summer programs to help teach more effectively and efficiently.  Toward the end of his article Von Drehle writes:

“In the best summer-only programs, bureaucracy is lean and change is easy.  There’s an informality to the summer culture – maybe it’s those bare feet and damp swimsuits and homemade lanyards – that fosters easy innovation and rapid improvement.  As Terry Ogle, a former middle-school principal who runs the Indianapolis Algebra Project, told me, things happen more quickly outside school systems:  “A few years ago, we were teaching kids at two summer sites.  Now we’re in 29.”

Von Drehle then describes a very successful summer program called Summer Advantage.  “The curriculum ranges from math, reading and writing to cooking, dance and music – but the consistent element is strong teachers working in small groups with excited students.”   Reading and math scores improve after just the summer.   Then comes the key question.

     “…if summer enrichment is the innovative, cost-effective answer to one of the nation’s thorniest problems – the failure to educate many of our neediest kids – how do we address so large a problem without creating another stultifying version of the failed status quo?  How do we increase participation and raise standards without crushing creativity and imposing bureaucracy?  Can we really entrust something so important to a haphazard network of camp counselors, volunteers and entrepreneurs?”

Can we trust school bureaucracies, teachers unions, politicians, and business people turned educators to do any better?   Are we racing to the top or chasing our tail?  A hard look at what makes these summer programs succeed might be useful.  Some seem to be having success during the summer that schools have trouble replicating during the school year.  Maybe we won’t work quite so hard trying to turn learning into schooling.  I wonder how many kids are sitting in school now wishing their school day could be more like their summer.    

Watch a video showing how much of the achievement gap can be attributed to lack of stimulation during the summer, Two Steps Forward. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VEkIkdHwvso


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