July seems to be an appropriate month to write about what we in education call “the summer slide.” This term refers to the widely held perception that during the summer students lose a rather substantial amount of the knowledge they accumulated throughout the school year. While this phenomenon refers to loss of skills in both reading and math, this article will focus on reading, since it garners the most attention and is the area on which many summer programs focus.
Until recently, the “summer slide” phenomenon has been repeated as if it is gospel, but a deeper dive into the research suggests that, as is the case virtually every time scientists attempt to quantify human behavior, nothing is ever as simple or universal as it seems. In fact, research today suggests the “slide” exists to varying degrees for some children and not at all for others.
The first point of contention for some researchers begins with the limited scope under which the term “summer slide” has been defined. For example, Dr. Peter Gray, a renowned expert in child development, suggests that it is based on the erroneous assumption that the only learning that matters is what occurs in school and is measured by tests. He contends that the social, emotional, and life skills children learn outside the school environment, particularly while engaging in what he calls free play, are every bit, if not more important than the academic skills they acquire while sitting in a classroom.
Research on the role soft skills such as leadership, attitude, interpersonal acumen, cooperation, problem solving, and decisiveness play in people’s success would seem to support Dr. Gray’s position. Despite their importance, and many others not named here, these kinds of skills have been inexplicably ignored during the last few decades of politically created school reform initiatives that we have been told will help children become successful.
But, even if one is to accept the narrow definition of the “summer slide,” such a slide is by no means universal. In fact, as is often the case when studying student success, generally speaking, the degree to which reading test scores decrease, or if they lag at all during summer break, is impacted by the level of poverty in which children reside.
In fact, students from higher socio-economic homes will often show growth in reading skills over the summer months while children from a lower income environment often show a decline.
There are many theories as to why this occurs. One is that students from wealthier homes have more educational opportunities during the summer that cost money, such as summer camps or private tutoring opportunities, and they are more likely to take advantage of programs that don’t cost money, such as summer reading programs offered by community libraries, for example.
Another theory even has its own name. The “faucet theory” suggests that students from all socio-economic levels have access to educational opportunities during the school year, but those opportunities tend to dry up more often for children who live in poverty once school is out, because their parents either don’t understand the importance of engaging their children in learning opportunities outside the school day and year, or they aren’t interested in doing so. In other words, for some children, the learning “faucet” shuts off when school is not in session, and they suffer the consequences.
Still another theory is that parents who live in poverty are less likely to understand the role they play in their child’s education, so they don’t do things like read and talk to them the way children need them to if they are to develop their literacy and reading skills.
Finally, generally speaking, parents who live in poverty have not attained the level of education parents who are more affluent have attained, so they do not value education in the same manner. They don’t emphasize the importance of learning as much as their kids need them to.
Of course, nothing is universal. There are parents who live in poverty who value education, who take their children to the library, who enroll their children in free summer reading programs, and who consistently read to and communicate with them, and their kids flourish.
There are enough free summer reading programs available to kids thanks to generous people who donate books to families that no child needs to suffer from a “summer slide.” But, these programs are most effective in homes where parents understand the role they play in their children’s education and they actively engage with them. These parents use the books as tools to help their children improve their reading skills … and they do.
Parents matter, and if we can get them all to buy into their role as their child’s most important educator, maybe the “summer slide” can return to being something kids play on at the park.
Tom Dunn is the former superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.