Make summer learning a public priority

Out of school activity is crucial to closing the achievement gap

THROUGHOUT MASSACHUSETTS RIGHT NOW, there is a tale of two summers playing out.

Parents with financial means are organizing camps, vacations, and lessons for their children. These experiences will stimulate curiosity, build background knowledge, contribute to social and emotional development, and expand social networks. They will also prepare young people for the school year ahead. Young people from low-income families too often can’t or don’t find these opportunities, participating at just half the rate of their wealthier peers.

Policy leaders often focus too narrowly on the four walls of the school and overlook decades of research on this main driver of the achievement gap.

The damage is direct and acute. On average, low-income students fall behind academically – and the effect is cumulative, furthering our persistent state achievement gap. Research shows that over half of the gap by ninth grade can be attributed to this phenomenon of summer learning loss.

It is natural to ask what is different today than when those of us in our 40s and older were kids.

First, the gap in spending on enrichment has nearly doubled over the past 30 years, with the top income quintile of households now outspending the bottom quintile by seven times. We also know more about the importance of these experiences to school performance. Most importantly, the economic, health, and educational stakes are higher for those who do not complete school successfully. Schools alone are unlikely to close achievement gaps or equip students with all the skills they need to succeed in college and careers. Summer is a key variable in the school success equation.

But how do we get students learning over July and August?

Boston’s successful approach has been to engage kids based on their interests. Yes, they learn math and reading with a teacher. But they also learn to sail in Boston Harbor, explore the salt marshes on Thompson Island, and experiment with science concepts at Hale Reservation. Many more students like them learn on college campuses, at workplaces, and in community nonprofits. Throughout this network of programs, students are applying academic concepts in enriching “real world” experiences.

Leaders in cities across the Commonwealth are beginning to address this issue in ways that advance both academic progress and college readiness.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh quickly recognized the benefits of this approach and called for a citywide system of summer learning that would include 10,000 students in 100 programs by 2017. The response was overwhelming, and 120 programs serving nearly 12,000 students are joining forces this summer, shattering the goal a year early.

This is just a start. State Rep. Alice Peisch, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Education, filed legislation this year that presents an opportunity to take action.

Peisch’s bill, House bill 4033, would expand Boston’s research-based model of summer learning to other cities in the Commonwealth and multiply state funds with local resources, catalyzing partnerships that build academic and college readiness skills in young people. City and school leaders from Boston, Worcester, New Bedford, and Salem have testified in support of this bill.

New national research affirms the positive instincts of these leaders. RAND’s five-city study, which includes Boston and is supported by The Wallace Foundation, reveals a significant advantage in math in the fall for program participants over their peers. Local evaluations show students are improving the college success skills of critical thinking, collaboration, perseverance, and self-management over the summer.

Summer learning presents a unique and targeted investment opportunity with solid returns.

Since many families already access summer programs, policy-makers can focus on those who do not have the time, means, or language abilities to organize these activities for their children. City leaders can engage a wider array of organizations, from museums to colleges, as partners in learning. Parents can work without the constant strain of finding childcare. And students can stay on track with their peers while adding positive—often transformational—experiences to their sense of who they can become.

Meet the Author

It’s a clear opportunity at the right time.

Chris Smith is executive director of Boston After School & Beyond, a public-private partnership that supports expanded learning opportunities.