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In our opinion: Stopping summer slide

Published: Thursday, June 16 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

"No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers' dirty looks!"

It's summer vacation, and while that may well mean a reprieve from teachers' looks — dirty or otherwise — keeping a few pencils and books around may not be a bad idea.

By the end of the summer, students will perform, on average, one month behind current levels in reading and math due to a loss of knowledge and skills over the long break.

The "summer slide," as it's known in educational circles, disproportionately affects low-income kids, whose parents often don't have the means to send them to summer camps or the time to organize other stimulating activities.

And it is especially pronounced in reading. All students tend to fall behind in math over the course of a summer, but low-income students lose more ground in reading, while higher-income students may even post reading gains.

Sadly, this learning loss is also cumulative, with the gap between rich and poor growing wider as students get older. By some estimates, more than half of the achievement gap between low-income and high-income students can be explained by summer learning losses.

Some argue we don't need summer vacation anymore and that this vestige of our agrarian past persists simply out of nostalgia. Indeed, districts across the country have experimented with year-round school, though the motivation has been in large part to alleviate overcrowding in schools. But this strategy may also positively affect the achievement gap — both between rich and poor, and between students in America and elsewhere in the world.

Alternatively, a RAND study released this week highlights some successful experiments with summer learning programs targeted toward low-income students. These programs combine learning with fun activities like arts and kayaking, giving less privileged kids a taste of what their wealthier peers experience during the summer. The RAND report offers communities and school districts best practices and tips for creatively funding these enterprises.

No one wants to take away summer vacation, and for children with several months to kill until school starts again, there are also things parents and communities can do to mitigate the summer slide.

Most importantly, experts say, students need to keep reading. Read Today (readtoday.com), a Deseret Management Companies initiative, offers tracking tools and contest prizes for summer reading. Public libraries also offer summer reading programs and regular activities. And most teachers are willing, if asked, to give a heads up on what students will learn next year and share ideas for getting a head start.

Aside from reading, there are other ways to keep learning. Camping, hiking and exploring nature reserves offer opportunities to incorporate learning about the natural world. Visiting museums and other cultural centers as part of a family vacation can also keep young minds engaged.

We hope families will take advantage this summer of myriad opportunities that already exist in their communities to reduce summer learning loss.

We also encourage school districts and communities to think creatively about solutions, including summer learning programs aimed at low-income students and families, for mitigating summer learning loss among the children who most need a good education.

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