Concerns about students losing academic ground during summer vacation are aired regularly in the education and academic media around the time that the school year comes to an end. Alfie Kohn believes that these concerns are overblown and are a natural extension of the fear adults have of children “wasting time.” The same fear, Kohn writes, drives academics to defend homework as necessary because otherwise children will fill their time with television, movies and internet browsing.
It’s predictable, then, that we’d be disinclined to let children chill just because it’s hot out. We’re primed and ready to respond when someone claims that all the progress students have made during the school year will be lost forever if they’re allowed to slack off during the summer. It’s a Sisyphusean metaphor buried in our DNA: The minute you let up in your efforts to roll that rock toward the summit, well, you know what happens. “L’école d’été pour tous les enfants!”
Research has shown that summer loss is a real phenomenon, but it is not nearly as pervasive as people claim. Furthermore, the scope of the problem seems to be such that the commonly suggested remedies don’t readily apply. There’s a strong relationship between the student’s income level and how far he or she will regress during the summer break. Kohn writes that the income achievement gap could largely be explained by the disproportionately large impact summer break fade has on academic achievement of low-income students.
Second, to the extent that low-income kids are likely to lose ground in reading proficiency, Richard Allington, who specializes in this very issue, points out that summer school (and summer homework assignments) aren’t necessary or even sensible. Rather, he and his colleagues have shown that the key is to ensure “easy and continuing access to self-selected books for summer reading” — a solution that’s not only a lot cheaper than summer school but a lot less likely to cause kids’ interest in learning to evaporate in a sweltering classroom.
Another issue confronting those looking to study and eliminate the summer fade is that the data is drawn almost entirely from standardized test scores. According to Kohn, this kind of data doesn’t paint a very representative picture of student achievement. But researchers are reluctant to look at other measures of student progress because none offer a picture that is as objective as an exam result, and therefore keep drawing conclusions that could be flawed.