By Natalie Morgan
The solution to the prevailing achievement gaps in education may be on the horizon, according to experts Matthew Boulay and Representative Barbara Smith Warner.
During the most recent episode of NCSL’s “Our American States” podcast, Boulay, founder and CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, stated that the culprit of achievement gaps is “very simply, due to the fact that students often fall behind in the summer months.”
This reality, Boulay described, is known as the “summer slide.” He elaborated, “It is a phenomenon that most teachers are familiar with.”
While it is common that children must relearn material at the beginning of every school year, Boulay believes the scope of the problem is much larger than commonly envisioned.
“It’s not just one summer that matters in terms of kids’ overall growth,” said Boulay. “It’s the repeated, cumulative effect of summer learning loss that comprises a major educational problem.”
Warner, who chaired the state’s Summer Learning Work Group, agreed with Boulay that the summer slide is problematic.
“We still conduct school stuck in our 19th century agriculture model,” said Warner. “That model expects kids to be out working in the fields or having a Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn fence-painting experience over the summer.”
Unfortunately, Warner concluded, such summer experiences are not typical. Because the enriching summer experiences found in the past do not match the needs of students in the present, she insisted that the schooling system should continue to evolve to avoid the summer slide phenomenon.
Without adaptivity, according to Warner, existing inequalities are exacerbated. She detailed that during the school year, children achieve at relatively similar rates regardless of family income.
Yet, this equality fades during the summer months as “kids from high income families are engaging in learning experiences and low-income kids are best-case watching TV or playing video games.”
Warner explained that these educational inequalities prove problematic. Without summer learning opportunities, the impact accumulates over time. Warner described, “By fifth grade, kids that are not having summer opportunities are up to two years behind their peers.”
Furthermore, the increased inequalities resulting from a lack of summer educational resources extend far beyond literacy rates, according to Warner.
“Kids are now facing three months every year lacking fundamental resources,” Warner elaborated. She said such resource gaps include educational needs as well as physical needs such as access to meals.
During the recent podcast, Belay and Warner concluded that access to summer learning programs would not only help to close achievement gaps exacerbated by the summer break but also potentially alleviate food insecurity for school-age children.
Specifically, Boulay outlined a policy introduced by several dozen states that allows schools to keep their libraries open during the summer months. According to Boulay, “Creative solutions to summer learning lead us towards keeping a cafeteria open and a library open.”
This policy perspective is financially plausible, “as it does not require a huge investment of funding.” Despite its minimal financial requirements, Boulay pointed to its effectiveness. “It can be statewide, builds on existing use of resources, and is an opportunity for awareness building about summer learning.”
Summer learning programs are the “sweet spot” between traditional summer school and summer camp, according to Warner, as they provide structured learning without the rigidity of formal summer school.
Warner explained that while specific policies regarding the implementation of summer learning programs may vary, summer learning programs must have nutrition, transportation, and funding through a non-competitive grant to ensure success.
“Every state can attack the problem in a number of different ways,” said Boulay. “But prioritizing it as a real goal is the first step.”
Natalie Morgan is an intern in NCSL's Member Outreach and Digital Communications division.