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Rethinking Summer School

Expert warns that students forget up to two months of instruction during summer vacation.

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Summer is just a few weeks away—but most high school students won't spend it learning. According to a 2010 study by the Wallace Foundation, a national education nonprofit, just 25 percent of school-age children participate in a summer learning program. I spoke with Ron Fairchild, an education consultant and former director of the Johns Hopkins University Center of Summer Learning (now known independently as the National Summer Learning Association), about the problems students face over the summer and what constitutes a good summer learning program.

Fairchild will speak to youth leaders, politicians, and business owners about the importance of summer learning programs at the Boys & Girls Clubs of America National Conference in New Orleans this weekend. The organization offers a number of free, community-based summer learning programs for students of all ages.

Studies have shown that students forget much of what they learn during the school year over the summer—as much as two months of math and reading loss. What's happening to students over the summer? 

It's common sense really—research provides footnotes for common sense. We'd all expect athletes or musicians' performance to suffer if they didn't practice. If you don't do something for three months, there's going to be a drop-off. Many students don't have books in their homes. Math is one area that requires regular practice and repetition. Any child that doesn't practice those skills is going to experience some setback. We're literally giving back those gains that teachers and principals work really hard to secure every year.

Generally, people think of traditional summer school as a place for kids who failed classes to catch up, and maybe a chance for better performers to earn some extra credits. Is that still the case?

Typically, I try to avoid the term 'summer school.' It has such a negative connotation; it invokes a horrible image. No parent will brag about their kid going to summer school. People think it's overly punitive, remedially focused, and it conjures up the image of kids lined up in rows of desks learning material they didn't cover during the school year.

Many districts are doing away with that old notion of summer school. Increasingly we're seeing schools teaming with other organizations to create programs parents and kids want. Summer is a season that's celebrated unlike any other. In popular media, in advertising, [and] in music, it's associated with freedom. So the last thing you want to do is construct a program or strategy that takes that away. We don't want to be seen as the Grinches [who] stole summer vacation; we want kids to get outdoors and see the connection between doing the things they love and learning about those things.

When kids fall behind and need to make up classes, they're much more likely to drop out of high school. Summer seems like the perfect time for these kids to make up some of these credits. But are summer programs seen as a chance to re-engage students and get them excited about learning?

Absolutely. We're seeing programs that not only have impact on measures like motivation and engagement in learning, but we're seeing improvements on their grades when they return to school [and] a positive impact on attendance, which has a lot to do with the dropout problem. [Summer programs] also often improve students' behavior in class.

You say the performance gap between lower-class and middle- and upper-class students is greatest during the summer. Why is that?

In general what you see happen in summer is that the middle- and upper-class continue to learn through summer programs and opportunities that their families provide. Often, kids living in poverty lack access to these programs. A significant portion of the achievement gap can be explained with differences in summer opportunities.

It's not just an issue of actual achievement; it has a lot to do with childhood health and obesity. Programs run by community organizations and schools give kids the chance to be active, and they often provide structured meals. Only about 20 percent of kids who qualify for free and reduced meals get them during summer. Research shows kids at risk for childhood obesity gain weight three times as fast during summer, usually due to a sedentary lifestyle.

What constitutes a good summer program?

What I see in quality programs—it doesn't matter if they're run by schools, community organizations, or clubs—is that the people running them are well-trained ... They need to be student-centered ... It starts with the notion that you're going to blend things that really interest kids with the academic support that they need. They focus on things that kids need for the transition to the next year. It's not reinforcing the idea that, 'Oh, you failed to do this last year.' It's looking at, 'This is what you need to be learning to be successful in the next school year, so this is what we're going to focus on.'

How do you feel about summer reading lists?

They're a good start. But to give a summer reading list is one thing; to prepare them for the reading over the summer is something else. Teachers that do some preparation with the kids before the end of the school year, do some outreach to parents, [or] talk to [parents] about the importance of reading the books throughout the summer—those are the most successful.

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Corrected 6/23/11: An earlier version of this post misidentified the National Summer Learning Association.