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November 2010 | Volume 68 | Number 3
Closing Opportunity Gaps
Jane L. David
As teachers know, during the summer all students forget some of what they learned the previous school year. The drop-off in learning during these months is much greater for students from low-income families than for their middle-class peers. Can summer programs help close the gap?
Because learning gaps increase more over the summer than during the school year, well-designed summer programs regularly attended by economically disadvantaged students could help keep the gaps from widening.
It's not news that low-income students have more limited opportunities to learn than their more advantaged peers, both in and out of school. In the summer, students from more advantaged homes often continue to learn through camps, lessons, private academic programs, and travel. Less-well-off students have fewer options, so their rates of learning tend to slow much more than those of their advantaged counterparts. Summer programs could help close this gap. However, these programs' track records reveal challenges both in mounting high-quality programs and in ensuring that low-income students attend.
In the 1970s, researchers began to measure the effect of school attendance on learning by comparing learning rates during the school year with learning rates during the summer. These studies discovered that learning rates decrease during the summer and that the drop is much larger for low-income students (Downey, von Hippel, & Broh, 2004; Heyns, 1987). In fact, over half of the disparity in achievement between low- and high-income students entering high school has occurred in the summer months (Alexander, Entwisle, & Olson, 2007). Achievement gains calculated from one spring to the next mask these seasonal differences.
These diverging growth rates are partly explained by differences in the kinds of summer activities available to students at different income levels. Chin & Phillips (2004) found differences in children's exposure to academic learning experiences (such as camps and academic programs) and opportunities to develop their talents (such as art classes, piano lessons, and organized sports). They determined that low-income parents wanted to provide expanded learning opportunities for their children but lacked access to resources.
One obvious solution is for schools and other agencies to provide summer learning opportunities for students from low-income families. However, studies of the effects of academic summer programs on achievement suggest caution. Although some programs have positive effects on student achievement, not all students benefit equally. Moreover, attracting low-income students to summer programs is a challenge, even for programs that target this population.
A recent review of 43 summer program evaluations included 11 studies based on experimental designs (Terzian, Moor, & Hamilton, 2009). It is difficult to measure the effect over such a short period of time, yet 5 of the 11 studies showed clear evidence of positive program results. For example, one effective program targeted low-income children of color the summer after 1st grade. The daylong program combined two hours of literacy activities with traditional summer camp activities, such as art, music, and sports. Results demonstrated increased reading comprehension scores (which persisted six months later) compared with a control group.
An earlier review of 93 summer program evaluations found increases in student achievement whether the programs focused on remedial or accelerated learning. Whatever the focus, however, middle-class students showed larger positive effects than did low-income students (Cooper, Charlton, Valentine, & Muhlenbruck, 2000). Similarly, a study of public library summer reading programs found that these programs raised reading scores but also found that participants were from a higher socioeconomic level than students who did not participate (Roman, Carran, & Fiore, 2010).
The Harvard Family Research Group, seeking to understand the challenges faced in launching high-quality programs, analyzed 34 evaluations that included data on how well each program was implemented (Wimer & Gunther, 2006). This analysis, together with the reviews cited above, point to a similar set of features that characterize the most effective programs. These features include small class sizes, opportunities for individual attention, programs that last several weeks, and clear instructional goals coupled with well-trained teachers who engage students in interesting activities.
But designing programs with these features is just the start. The larger challenge is attracting students who are most in need of rich summer experiences. Researchers who attempt to identify ways to attract low-income students note that programs must be both affordable and easily accessible. Programs are more likely to attract and retain low-income students if planners and teachers create personal connections with students and their families and work closely with local schools and community organizations (Terzian, Moor, & Hamilton, 2009; Wimer & Gunther, 2006).
Providing enticing and effective summer learning programs for low-income students is never easy and is certainly made more difficult by the current recession. Many school districts are cutting summer programs, not creating them. With the cuts, many students are missing out on not only academic support but also meals, exercise, and fun.
The situation calls for creative partnerships built on resources in the community. For example, local businesses and civic leaders could offer scholarships for students to attend existing camps and summer programs that would otherwise be out of reach because of cost or transportation issues. Teachers can also encourage students and their parents to take advantage of local resources, such as public library reading programs.
If resources are available to mount summer learning programs, educators need to dedicate extra effort to making students and their families aware of and excited about those programs. Without advance planning and intensive efforts to reach students most in need, gaps will continue to grow during the summer in spite of heroic efforts during the school year.
Alexander, K. L., Entwisle, D. R., & Olson, L. S. (2007). Lasting consequences of the summer learning gap. American Sociological Review, 72(4), 167–180.
Chin, T., & Phillips, M. (2004). Social reproduction and child-rearing practices: Social class, children's agency, and the summer activity gap. Sociology of Education, 77(3), 185–210.
Cooper, H., Charlton, K., Valentine, J. C., & Muhlenbruck, L. (2000). Making the most of summer school: A meta-analytic and narrative review. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 65(1), 1–118.
Downey, D. B., von Hippel, P. T., & Broh, B. (2004). Are schools the great equalizer? Cognitive inequality during the summer months and the school year. American Sociological Review, 69(5), 613–635.
Heyns, B. (1987). Schooling and cognitive development: Is there a season for learning? Child Development, 58, 1151–1160.
Roman, S., Carran, D. T., & Fiore, C. D. (2010). The Dominican study: Public library summer reading programs close the reading gap. River Forest, IL: Dominican University.
Terzian, M., Moor, K. A., & Hamilton, K. (2009). Effective and promising summer learning programs and approaches for economically disadvantaged children and youth. New York: Wallace Foundation.
Wimer, C., & Gunther, R. (2006). Summer success: Challenges and strategies in creating quality academically focused summer programs (Issues and Opportunities in Out-of-School Time Evaluation, No. 9). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project.
Jane L. David is director of the Bay Area Research Group, Palo Alto, California;
firstname.lastname@example.org. She is the author, with Larry Cuban, of Cutting Through the Hype: The Essential Guide to School Reform (Harvard Education Press, 2010).
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