Eye on Education

Keeping Students’ Skills Sharp Over Summer Vacation


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Ah, the summer slide.

It’s not your child’s playground agenda during their school vacation– it’s a term used for the regression of students’ skills over their scholastic summer breaks.

School summer vacations typically leave U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan a little bit baffled.

“Students and teachers work so hard, get to a certain point in June, and too many come back in the fall further behind than when they left,” said Duncan. “That just simply makes no sense.”

Duncan chatted on WCPN’s daily call-in show The Sound of Ideas about how much of what students learn slips away during the long summer break.

Research shows many students, especially low-income students, tend to lose math and reading skills over the summer.

Duncan thinks that could be combated by having more time in school than they’re getting today.

“If we’re serious about ending the cycles of poverty and social failure, the traditional calendar, six, six and a half hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year, is insufficient if we’re serious about the traditional is insufficient for some children,” said Duncan.

One alternative? Year-round schooling. In education circles they call it a “balanced calendar”: students go to school for periods of around 30 to 45 days, intermixed with a handful of two-to-three week breaks.

A few schools within the Cleveland Metropolitan School District have already switched to this kind of schedule, and a few more plan to.

Sarah Pitcock, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, says the idea that year round school is the solution to summer learning loss is questionable.  She points to an Ohio State study on the balanced calendar to make her case.

“Kids lost the same amount of learning over the course of the year over a balanced calendar, it’s just they lose it in smaller pieces,” Pitcock said. “I think our response to that approach is you still have to think about those intercessions, and the question is really, how can you add more time for the kids who need it most.”

The discussion also focused on ways to make the time out of the classroom count.

Education Secretary Duncan stressed the responsibility of parents finding ways to keep their kids engaged during school breaks.

And that was echoed in this email from a listener, read on the air by Sound of Ideas host Mike McIntyre.

“Parents can take advantage of summer reading programs offered by most public libraries during the summer months,” McIntyre read. “Parents should especially encourage their tween and teen children to participate in these programs. This is when reading really drops off.”

Parents were encouraged to check out partners in their communities, like libraries or other organizations, that may offer some educational summer programming to keep students learning over school breaks.

You can listen to the entire The Sound of Ideas show here.


  • George Viebranz

    Four cycles of 10 weeks on and 3 weeks off is used in some places. The challenge, of course, is that the education system is very big and very complex, with lots of interacting parts. Even for a state, the best way to make the shift would be to mandate the calendar for all districts. Local control advocates could be opposed to such a move, as could the outdoor entertainment industry in the colder states who count on long, warm summers, and lots of kids with free time for their parks and outdoor activities to be financially viable. It would be interesting for readers to express what they see as the potential pros and cons of such a switch.

  • Thom Markham

    The ‘summer slide’ is an artifact of a system that views retention of information as paramount and equates learning with testing. Students who learn how to ask questions and solve problems don’t ‘slide’, any more than an adult forgets how to ride a bike. The last thing kids need? An extra month of the same curriculum.

    • Patrick

      Agreed, Thom, but we need training for teachers or revamped college and teacher prep programs. The CCSS are not the enemy. Lack of educational ingenuity is.

  • Art

    Thom is correct. I’ve been teaching high school (8 years), college and graduate school (20 years) and even USAF pilots (2 years). If a student cares about what s/he is learning and is interested then we don’t see a slide, we often see growth as the student takes time to learn more about things that interest him/her.
    While some students may require extra time to learn a subject, most students just need a sense of urgency and a real reason to learn what they are taught. It is interesting that we offer large salaries and perks to CEOs and senior officers in organizations, but we expect that a 8, 12, or 17 year old will learn for learning’s sake…
    More time in the same education system isn’t going to fix this. Radical changes based on what technology and the economy can do is what will change it for the better.
    Ask teachers for ideas on what will work and LISTEN to their answers. Trust me, teachers think about it all the time. We can probably fix the whole system in less than 8 years, but we will need to decide whose ideas we will follow and then make sure that everyone understands that we will be investing money and time to make it happen.
    By the way, the cost of education can SIGNIFICANTLY be reduced if we decide that teachers really do know what they are doing.

  • Barbara McCarthy

    There are also other valuable lessons to be learned in the summer months. For students able to work, getting up every day and getting to a job on time prepares them well for the future. For the younger set, learning how to swim, taking a vacation to a faraway destination or reviewing material that was not mastered. For teachers, it’s time to get rejuvenated, develop new lessons, learn a new skill, take a course, or finish an advanced degree. I agree, the most vulnerable in the student population would be those with the fewest opportunities and resources. Unfortunately, those kids go to school in places that would be ill-equipped to provide a good learning environment during the summer months. My school was not air-conditioned in the summer and the months of June and September were often unbearable. Year round schooling does work in many locations but it would also have a devastating effect on sports programs as well as tourist destinations that rely on the tourist dollars. Does Mr. Duncan have any idea where the money would come from to implement such a program? In my state, there’s a 2% tax-cap that already has severely impacted local school budgets. Most schools have cut programs to the bone. Restoring some of those programs would definitely help students learn.

  • Gamal Sherif

    Educators appreciate flexible, community-based school schedules that sustain student engagement. Secretary Duncan has presented such a model. As educators, we CAN creatively restructure our schools to help students.

    Yet educators are, once again, being asked address the social inequities that foster summer slide, as if summer slide exists BECAUSE schools are closed in the summer.

    This sentence says a lot: “Research shows many students, especially low-income students, tend to loose math and reading skills over the summer.” This suggests that children’s proximity to poverty that leads to summer slide. But when we raise concerns about social inequities, we are told educators’ recommendations are beyond our professional scope of influence.

    We need to envision a social and economic infrastructure that helps families be happy, healthy and ready to learn.

    What if all families had a wide range of safe and engaging activities — year round — that could help students see themselves as life-long learners? Where are the libraries, recreation centers, and arts exhibits?

    What if all families had sane life-work balance so that they could spend more time with their children and neighbors? Families need stable working conditions, good pay, decent hours and time to rest — so that they can be civically engaged.

    Where is the call for a restructuring of our economy so that families are flourishing?

  • SKrashen

    Arne Duncan has suggested that year-round school is the solution to the summer slide. 
Thanks to the common core, year-round school will make things worse. 

Research tells us that those living in poverty have the least access to books.

    Students living in poverty also show the most summer loss, and those who read more over the summer make better gains in
reading achievement. Providing more access to interesting reading material by investing in public libraries and
librarians is an excellent way to deal with summer learning loss.


School during the summer means more common core, and less chance of pleasure reading happening. The common core discourages pleasure reading, because of its harsh set of standards, nonstop testing, and
restriction to reading at or above “grade level,” which for half of our students means a limitation to difficult reading (by definition, half of the students read below grade level, because grade level means the 50th
percentile). In addition, there is less funding than ever for school libraries, thanks the huge amount of money being spent on online testing. 

    Some sources: 

Poverty and access to books: Neuman, S. and Celano, D. 2001. Access to print in low-income and middle-income communities. Reading Research Quarterly 36(1): 8-26.

Summer loss and poverty, more reading and gains: 

Allington, R. and McGill-Franzen, Anne. 2012. Summer Reading: Closing the Rich/Poor Reading Achievement Gap. New York: Teachers College Press.
Heyns, Barbara. 1975. Summer Learning and the Effect of School. New York: Academic Press.
Kim, Jimmy. 2003. Summer reading and the ethnic achievement gap, Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk 9, no. 2:169-188.
Shin, Fay. and Krashen, Stephen. 2007. Summer Reading: Program and Evidence. New York: Allyn and Bacon.

    The common core and reading: Krashen, S. 2013. Access to books and time to read versus the common core standards and tests. English Journal 103(2): 21-39. (available at http://www.sdkrashen.com).

  • Leanne HoaglandSmith

    All I can say, is you think? The University of Chicago back in the 1990′s with Hooked on Phonics shared the research about cognitive (learning) loss and the summer breaks created exponential loss for those students already behind.

    We are one of only 3 industrialized countries – Canada, Mexico and the US – still on an agrarian school calendar.

    This archaic calendar should have been changed back in the mid 1950′s if not earlier.

    By having more breaks with less off time in between work with the schedules of many parents who must find day care during the summer months. No problem is unsolvable when we consider alternate solutions.

    What we have today is not working.

  • Maine Teacher

    Although I love my classroom teaching job, I earn only 44,000 with 29 years of experience teaching English, a Bachelor’s in my content area, and a Masters in Literacy. I attend PD opportunities in the summer, read pedagogy books and articles, and research the Internet for hours a week to improve my practice, do lots of lesson planning, and spend at least two weeks in August organizing my classroom, often more. I also help run a business in the summer to make ends meet. Unless my small, very rural school district with many free and reduced lunch kids is going to pay me more, I can’t see how I can work more or longer days. The position and pay of classroom teachers relative to their importance in this country MUST improve.

  • Savio

    I agree with the fact that students lose touch with their subjects. I would take the flipped classroom approach and have students revise using web based instruction. One could also use social networking sites to keep student’s in the learning loop.

  • Pearl Pullman

    It’s amazing that parents aren’t mentioned in any of the responses. Even poor parents can contribute to their child’s education. NEVER have I received any material from school to carry over skills through vacation. Some blank worksheets would be nice. Duplicates of what they did in class would be tremendously helpful. As a foster mother & grandmother, I do continue education outside the schools, including things not a part of local curriculum, i.e. Spanish, sign language, geography, history, etc. I needed some hard copies for a third grader and had to search the internet. Khan Academy is wonderful, but hard copies can be done w/o expensive electronics.

    PS: The author/writer needs to learn the difference between “then” and “than”.

    • SBRules

      At my elementary school we placed extra workbooks and textbooks from various grade level language arts and math programs for parents and grandparents to access and use for the summer months and/or the upcoming school year. While no longer part of the curriculum our state has mandated we teach next year the grade level content is still there.

      • Pearl Pullman

        That is great. However, as a parent of 3, grandparent of 9, foster parent of near 20 I never saw that option in any class. I tried to follow a Pinterest link posted here & it didn’t work. I’m still looking for simple worksheets to help twin 6 year olds, a 10 year old & an 11 year old continue their education throughout the Summer. Any ideas??

    • amyq

      That is not the only mistake she made….

    • Jess D

      Good call. She also should note the proper usage of “loose” and “lose.”

  • Mark Butler

    Top 10 Tech Tools for K-5 Summer Learning via @pinterest http://pinterest.com/pin/3564177579

  • SBRules

    How about good old fashioned summer school…even students with exceptional needs do not get summer services as they did 5 years ago due to budget cuts…We need to stop this nonsensical dialogue with Mr. Duncan and the faux educators who do not get education, but understand corporate profit.

  • SBRules

    Also: Let’s not make school a baby sitter

  • Mel Riddile

    It’s About Time…for those students who need more time…not for all students. A ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution is doomed to fail. The answer is that there is no single answer. The idea of year round school for some students is on target. The idea of year round school for all students is “dead in the water.” Middle class parents will never support more time for their children, and why should they? While their children lose two months of math learning over the Summer months, they do not lose language skills–reading, writing–because their children live in a language enriched home environment. Math teachers know that they must spend a significant portion of the beginning of each school reviewing past material. “The question is really, how can you add more time for the kids who need it most.” As principal, I worked for years for approval to operate a Summer School program, which was attended by 30 percent of our students—the students who needed more learning time over and above the after-school tutoring and Saturday School program. These students included ELL and low income students. The results were impressive. We not only stopped the Summer Slide, but we actually made significant gains in student achievement over a number of years.

  • Athol Wong

    Having time to play and relax is important to learning, too, especially in an increasingly high-pressure high school environment where students are pushed to build their college entrance resumes by volunteering, participating in school activities, and take rigorous courses and high-stakes exams for IB or AP credit. I was part of a district that received a grant to lengthen the school year a few years back. There was no indication that the extra 15 days improved achievement or retention. A year-round calendar, with spaced, shorter breaks is, however, a very attractive idea. It’s time we moved away from the agrarian base of the 19th century. Who says educators don’t change? :)

  • amyq

    Amy you need some more schooling yourself, geez I can’t even read it without finding an error in every other sentence! Makes it seem as if this article wasn’t that important….

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