“Summer Learning Day” on July 12 is a symbol of how much young people can learn outside of school —and of how those learning occasions can contribute to opportunity gaps. “Gap” is actually an understatement. There are opportunity gulfs, reflecting wider inequalities in this new “gilded age.”
Not only do students often lose math skills (a month or so on average) over the summer, or fail to advance in reading. Students already behind may fall back further, if more advantaged students hone their proficiency. This is a parallel to what Keith Stanovich popularized as “Matthew effects” (the Gospel according to Matthew: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath”—XXV:29). As Stanovich wrote in 1986, “The concept of Matthew effects springs from findings that individuals who have advantageous early educational experiences are able to utilize new educational experiences more efficiently.”
Disparities accumulate; start early but don’t give up
We shouldn’t be reductionist or defeatist about such “Matthew effects,” but recognize their risk and mitigate them—the earlier, the better. When one in five U.S. kids lives in poverty by the official measure—more in many communities, and if broader gauges are used-—action is needed on many fronts, toward “collective impact.” This is consistent with a “Broader, Bolder Approach to Education” launched to emphasize complementary roles of schools, families, neighborhoods, health and other resources.
Baltimore students are among those whose summer learning experiences—and their “lasting consequences”—have been documented, by Johns Hopkins researchers (e.g., in a 2007 paper). Differential summer learning in the early grades accounts for much of the disparity in reading ability, on average, correlated with students’ socioeconomic status (SES). The authors conclude: “Since it is low SES youth specifically whose out-of-school learning lags behind, this summer shortfall relative to better-off children contributes to the perpetuation of family advantage and disadvantage across generations.”
Such disparities go beyond academics, as summer may also present athletic, nutritional, artistic, and other cultural enrichment chances unevenly distributed. Rather than engaging, conventional “summer school” can be dully remedial, deterring students from attending regularly and thereby minimizing useful effects. Programs are of varying quality.
The National Summer Learning Association is one source. A 2017 Brookings analysis cites evidence about the significance of summer stimulation and support, or lack thereof. Sometimes teachers can reinforce kids’ summer reading at home.
In The Opportunity Equation, Eric Schwarz writes, “…Some of the achievement gap (20 to 30 percent) is caused by inequality between schools…. This inequality needs to change. But most of the gap comes from unequal access to learning opportunities offered after school or in the summers, at home or in a growing constellation of tutoring centers, skill-building camps, and paid enrichment and internship programs. Upper-income kids get many thousands of dollars invested in these types of extra learning opportunities…. This inequality needs to change too.” (p. 195)
Opportunity gulfs unacceptable; take action
We don’t have to accept these inequities, which are magnified by language barriers, racial bias, “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs), and wealth (not just income). In addition to advocating for sufficient public investments in schools, we can strengthen community organizations supporting students and their families
In New Haven alone, the Boys and Girls Club; Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT); Junta for Progressive Action (and its Big Turtle Village camp); LEAP (reading/literacy along with chess, dance, sports, etc.); New Haven Land Trust and Solar Youth (environmental education/citizenship) are just a few of the local nonprofits doing important work year-round. University partnerships include visits to labs and museums as well as the federally funded GEAR UP and Upward Bound, which bring students to college campuses. The Police Athletic/Activities League (PAL), Parks and Recreation, and Public Library provide positive activities. The Fresh Air Fund helps, too. Older youth need more summer internships/jobs, such as Youth@Work, in addition to supplementary academic and enrichment choices.
Like most other families, my wife and I assist our children with summer learning– but ability to pay can be a factor. Our daughter is part of a six-week academic enrichment program, with another week of sleep-away camp, while our son divides his summer between sports and music camps. We’re also availing ourselves of low-cost (even free) options through the city parks and library systems, which —along with public schools— we bolster through taxes. Without complaint, we would pay more for better, fairer results at the local, state, and national levels. Our modest philanthropic donations include some to local youth organizations.
Let us not be “dream hoarders” as author Richard Reeves charges, or (as Matthew Stewart argues in the Atlantic) worsen entrenchment of a new “aristocracy” with opportunities unimaginable to most kids of the middle class, let alone those of lower income.
Instead, support greater public equity, as well as the valuable nonprofits that strive creatively to complement our public institutions. And consider tutoring or mentoring a young person yourself.
A parent of two New Haven Public School students, Josiah H. Brown is volunteer president of the Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven. Twitter: @JosiahBrownCT