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Steve Nelson: ‘Summer Slide’ Is Not the Problem

The education establishment is in a twit over the phenomenon called “summer slide.” Summer slide is the loss of knowledge and competence in the summer months, according to research done by the RAND Corporation and Johns Hopkins University. Summer slide disproportionately plagues poor kids of color, so the recent, alarmingly low scores recorded by urban students on the Common Core tests heightened sensitivity about this issue.

Rather than acknowledging the corrosive effects of poverty, or conceding that the testing and accountability era has been a failure and has driven lousy practices, the answer is to make the least privileged kids work longer and harder while their more affluent peers summer in the Hamptons or the south of France.

Fear of summer slide has spawned a rash of summer programs and suggestions for year-round school, particularly for poor kids, so as to mitigate the mythological “two steps forward, one step back” rhythm of the school year. We should be much more worried by what is done during the school year than by what is allegedly lost over the summer.

As happens in education, highly publicized research becomes instant conventional wisdom and drives all kinds of drivel and bad policy. The current angst over summer slide is a poster child for this phenomenon. And while the bad policy plays out mostly in urban areas, the myth of summer slide is affecting children all over the country. Because of flawed research based on standardized test results, it is nearly universally accepted that more school equals better school. Even affluent parents are adding multiplication tables to the picnic dinner or grammar exercises before swimming.

Universally accepted, but not true.

Let’s start with the research findings. I won’t argue with the numbers, as far as they go. I’ll stipulate that the tests show a statistically significant drop-off in achievement between June and September for poor kids. The research invites speculation that the drop-off is greater for poor kids because they don’t have the enriching summer activities enjoyed by wealthier kids. I believe that hypothesis is mostly wrong.

As to the basic findings, the drop-off in knowledge is a well-known phenomenon, but it happens rapidly and then plateaus. It doesn’t steadily disintegrate day by day. Other research, compiled over many years by Independent School Management’s Roxanne Higgins, shows that it matters very little, if at all, whether the gap is two weeks, three months or longer.

Also ignored is research showing that the “ramp-up” is as or more rapid than the drop-off. In other words, post-summer tests will create the appearance that learning has died, when it is more accurate to characterize it as having gone dormant. If learning was authentic and meaningful, students, rich and poor, black and white, will very rapidly return to the level of competence from which they sprang into summer.

Current educational practice is producing “learning” that doesn’t just go dormant during summer. It dies because it is neither authentic nor meaningful. When achievement comes from the artificial fertilizer of mindless drills and test prep, it is easily extinguished and nearly impossible to resuscitate. I find it ironic and, frankly, funny, that the folks who impose these programs on children will invariably confess to the many times they crammed for a test, performed well and couldn’t remember anything a few weeks later (if the next day).

The researchers should know that construction of knowledge and understanding is more lasting than rote memorization or mindless routine. When you understand something, you are far more able to “reconstruct” the learning at a later time. School practices and curriculum should respond to the exploding body of knowledge coming from neuroscience. But they don’t. Instead we continue to run schools with 19th century factory-school practices while mouthing 21st century platitudes.

I don’t deny that privileged kids have more opportunities in the summer — and that is unjust. But wealthy kids are not doing anything that specifically addresses summer slide. They are at their summer homes, traveling abroad, playing tennis or hanging out with friends. These things can offer great learning, but have nothing to do with the supposed “loss” of reading, writing and arithmetic skills cited by the research.

Privileged kids don’t experience the same level of summer slide, but it is not due to math worksheets on the golf course. It is because the greater a child’s privilege, the more likely it is that her school year experience included discovery, construction of knowledge, engaged imagination, lots of passion and adequate dopamine (the neurotransmitter released when people are happy and has been proved to be essential for learning). This kind of learning is harder to extinguish and much more easily revitalized.

The architects of educational reform fall into the “summer in the Hamptons category,” so their privileged children are not sentenced to summer remediation to counter “slide.” They don’t need it. Nor do the students, rich and poor, in the school where I work. I’ve been leading a school for 15 years and I’m not even slightly concerned about summer slide. It’s because our students are learning during the school year, not being “trained” by stuffing them full of meaningless information.

Summer is not the problem. Poverty and poor educational practices are the problems, and all the summer remediation in the world is just putting a small Band-Aid on a gaping wound.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school.