A smarter summer


Jun 30, 2010

School is out for summer, and one glance at the bronzed bodies of the little people in my neighborhood in Hawaii leaves no doubt that surf is up. For the remaining blissful summer months, children like mine can slip into the sweet delirium of complete intellectual abandonment. When I asked the sixth grader next door if he was worried about forgetting everything he has learned in school this year, he shrugged and said with a smile, “Ainokea.” (I don’t care.)

Granted, many children are privy to academic enrichment over the summer—through summer schools, camps, parental tutoring and so forth. But studies show that student skills generally decline during the summer. One meta-review of 13 studies about summer learning loss concluded that, on average, student test scores in the reviewed studies were one month lower when the students returned to school in the fall than when they left in the spring. The study found that the effects were greatest with math and spelling loss, and that poorer children disproportionately fell behind in their skills verses their wealthier peers.

Not surprising statistics. But in an era of heightened focus on the job of schools to ensure all students achieve proficiency, summer learning loss seems untenable. If students on average lose a month of progress each year, then by the end of their K-12 experience they will have spent 12 months—more than an entire school year—relearning material. The inefficiency and expense of re-teaching material does not square with the imperative that every child demonstrates year-on-year achievement gains, even in the face of budget shortfalls.

Online learning might hold some answers to the challenge of summer learning loss. For one thing, online learning presents the opportunity for any time, any place education. This benefit is especially attractive in the summer months, a time that Americans typically set aside for fun. Parents and students would likely be more receptive to the idea of summertime skill maintenance if it could be done on netbooks or mobile devices without reporting to traditional classrooms.

In addition, online learning programs could be cost effective for the public, whereas extending the traditional school year to include the summer months would certainly be cost prohibitive. Already several online learning environments offer summer bridging solutions, such as Grockit’s Summer Learning Academy and K12’s Online Summer School. I have heard several parents in my neighborhood say they plan to use IXL, a math practice site, this summer to keep up their kids’ math skills. These solutions cost a tiny fraction of per-pupil expenditures for a traditional school day. And they will surely proliferate, as the millions of parents whose children are currently unable to afford expensive summer programs find that they can achieve the same results through low-cost online programs.

American nonchalance about summer learning loss leads to wasteful redundancy in the fall. Online learning holds the promise of allowing kids to keep up their skills over the summer without making them sit in class, and it doesn’t have to break the bank. With a little planning, it can slip seamlessly into the summer routine and still allow kids, at least in my state, to hang ten.

Heather is an adjunct researcher for the Christensen Institute and president of Ready to Blend. She is the co-author of Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools and co-founder of Brain Chase Productions, which produces online-learning challenges disguised as worldwide treasure hunts for students in grades 1-8.