The problem of summer vacation, first documented in 1906, compounds year after year. What starts as a hiccup in a 6-year-old's education can be a crisis by the time that child reaches high school. After collecting a century's worth of academic studies, summer-learning expert Harris Cooper, now at Duke University, concluded that, on average, all students lose about a month of progress in math skills each summer, while low-income students slip as many as three months in reading comprehension, compared with middle-income students. Another major study, by a team at Johns Hopkins University, examined more than 20 years of data meticulously tracking the progress of students from kindergarten through high school. The conclusion: while students made similar progress during the school year, regardless of economic status, the better-off kids held steady or continued to make progress during the summer, but disadvantaged students fell back. By the end of grammar school, low-income students had fallen nearly three grade levels behind, and summer was the biggest culprit. By ninth grade, summer learning loss could be blamed for roughly two-thirds of the achievement gap separating income groups.Forget the stereotype mental image you might have of lazy summer days spent playing at being Tom Sawyer. That is not how inner-city kids spend the summer.
During a June visit to the Argentine neighborhood of Kansas City, Kans., I received a quick tutorial on the realities of summer. I met a group of teenagers who were being paid through a private foundation to study writing and music and history for about 10 hours per week, and I asked them what they would be doing if the program weren't available. They told me about the swimming poolone public pool for all of Wyandotte County (pop. 155,000). They noted that their working-class neighborhood had a basketball hoop. And a soda machine. And that's about it. "There is an idyllic view of summer, but we've known for decades that the reality is very different for a lot of underprivileged kids," says Ron Fairchild, CEO of a nonprofit organization in Baltimore called the National Summer Learning Association. "We expect that athletes and musicians would see their performance suffer without practice. Well, the same is true of students."Many innovative summer programs have sprung up to provide creative learning opportunities for these children. Enthusiastic teachers are finding ways to mix fun with learning like in this program in Indianapolis.
For some 80 elementary-school children in this low-income neighborhood, the summer of 2010 is as close to world travel as they've ever been. The all-day program at the East 10th United Methodist Church is built this year around a World Cup theme. Each week the focus turns to another country, and while the kids are exploring foods and landmarks and cultural traditions, they are, unwittingly, doing math as they measure ingredients and learning science as they raise vegetable gardens with plants native to each land. Fridays are for field trips; to study Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the kids rode buses to the aquarium in Chicago.Or this one.
Meanwhile, a group of Indianapolis firefighters have gone from volunteering on ball fields to enrolling more than 100 students in an eight-week summer leadership camp named for St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters. Each morning, the camp "cadets" study math, science, creative writing and public speaking. Afternoons are reserved for sports and field trips. Senior cadetshigh schoolersfocus on learning the skills they need for a job hunt: writing resumes, impressing an interviewer, dressing for success. "We keep up our learning so we don't fall behind," says Isaiaah Quarles, a buoyant 12-year-old with a cascade of dreadlocks. As Quarles escorted me through the camp, whip smart and charming, I could picture him persuading his friends to paint Aunt Polly's fence. I asked him how he would spend his summer if St. Florian Center didn't exist. Dismayed, he answered, "I would just be sitting at home."Another interesting aspect of these sorts of programs is that they can be done outside the limitations imposed on regular public schools by the unions. They don't need to rely on seniority when they hire teachers. They can fire teachers who don't measure up.
It was during a summer vacation from Harvard Law School that Earl Phalen had his first teaching experience, as a volunteer at an impoverished school in Jamaica. He says he knew immediately that "this was what I wanted to do with my life." But like many other big thinkers drawn to education in recent years, Phalen saw the existing public schools as a roadblock, not a career path.With programs like these out there, one day we might be looking to extending the summer as the secret way to get around the losses in learning that students are experiencing in the regular school year in failing public schools.
So Phalen has become one of the country's leading education reformers by seizing opportunities to reach kids outside the traditional school day. One of his nonprofit ventures, Reach Out and Read, engages pediatricians to evangelize for literacy. His latest project, sponsored by an innovative Indiana undertaking called the Mind Trust, uses summer to make an end run around the ingrained habits and intractable bureaucracies of inadequate schools.
Called Summer Advantage, the program offers five weeks of intensive, all-day education to children from kindergarten to eighth grade. Phalen hires only certified teachers and chooses them on the basis of talent, not seniority. The curriculum ranges from math, reading and writing to cooking, dance and musicbut the consistent element is strong teachers working in small groups with excited students. I visited a Summer Advantage school in Indianapolis, and perhaps the best way to describe it is to say, first, that all the students are in economic and academic need and, second, that I wasn't there five minutes before a boy looked me in the eye and announced, "I'm going to be an aeronautical engineer." Summer Advantage is operating at a dozen sites across Indiana this year, serving some 3,100 "scholars," as Phalen insists his students be called. His goal is to enroll 100,000 scholars five years from now and to be "part of the cadre that changes the way this country does education." He has support from Washington, where a friend from Harvard Law now sits in the Oval Office. The U.S. Department of Education has put money into Summer Advantage, Phalen says, "because we're part of their agenda to prove that hiring teachers based on quality instead of seniority will produce good results." So far, the data look promising. Summer Advantage launched last year, and its scholars improved their performance on state math and reading tests by an average of 14 percentage points, Phalen says. On the basis of that, he projects that scholars who spend three seasons with Summer Advantage will raise their scores from an average baseline in the low 30th percentiles into the 70th percentiles in math and reading. (See the top 10 books you were forced to read in school.)
"If you want to drive the dropout rate even higher, just extend the school year by another 30 days," says Phalen. Instead, he argues, we should embrace the fact that summer is the opposite of school to make it the season of true educational reform. But here's the hard part: if summer enrichment is the innovative, cost-effective answer to one of the nation's thorniest problemsthe failure to educate many of our neediest kids how do we address so large a problem without creating another stultifying version of the failed status quo? How do we increase participation and raise standards without crushing creativity and imposing bureaucracy? Can we really entrust something so important to a haphazard network of camp counselors, volunteers and entrepreneurs? Well, maybe. In places all over the countryfrom inner cities to Appalachia, inside rec centers and church basements, on bumpy ball fields and pocked playgroundskids are learning this summer, and they're having a blast. While it's true that NASA runs one of the largest summer enrichment programs in the country, this isn't rocket science. If ever there was a movement suited to local experiments, informal innovations and seat-of-the-pants efforts, surely it's the campaign to squeeze more from summer. Because revolutions come from the grass roots, and everyone knows when grass is thickest.