Sum­mer slide af­fects stu­dent math skills

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The Prince George Citizen - - FRONT PAGE - GE­OFF JOHN­SON Victoria Times Colonist

all is in the air and school va­ca­tion is over. It’s time for kids, ed­u­ca­tion­ally speak­ing, to re­trieve the aca­demic de­tri­tus of what had seemed so im­por­tant just 10 weeks ago.

Ten weeks is a long time. It is a long time for a mu­si­cian not to prac­tise or for an ath­lete not to work out. For that mat­ter, it is a long time not to ex­er­cise at all, for friends not to see each other, and it is cer­tainly a long time for kids not to look at a book.

It is no sur­prise, then, to find that there is a neg­a­tive learn­ing con­di­tion af­fect­ing kids re­turn­ing to school in Septem­ber.

Called the “sum­mer slide,” the phe­nom­e­non has been stud­ied ex­ten­sively, in­clud­ing re­search in 2007 at John Hop­kins Univer­sity.

That study tracked stu­dents in Bal­ti­more from first grade through age 22. Among other scary find­ings, re­searchers con­cluded that even read­ing achieve­ment can be neg­a­tively in­flu­enced by a lack of ac­cess to learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ences and op­por­tu­ni­ties dur­ing the long sum­mer va­ca­tion.

An­other study, con­ducted by the RAND Cor­po­ra­tion, con­cluded that “el­e­men­tary stu­dents’ per­for­mance fall by about a month dur­ing the sum­mer.”

Most dis­turb­ing, says the RAND study, is that sum­mer learn­ing loss might be cu­mu­la­tive and af­fect the rest of the school year.

Adding to this dire con­cern, the Har­vard Grad­u­ate School of Ed­u­ca­tion’s Leah Shafer, in a 2016 re­search pa­per, ad­vises that math is one sub­ject hit par­tic­u­larly hard by the sum­mer break.

“Sum­mer and math­e­mat­ics just don’t seem to mix,” writes Shafer. “It’s ac­tu­ally eas­ier for kids — from all so­cioe­co­nomic back­grounds — to for­get what they learned in math over the sum­mer than it is for them to lose read­ing skills.”

Kath­leen Lynch, a doc­toral stu­dent at the HGSE, sug­gests the rea­son is that many par­ents don’t think about math as ex­ist­ing out­side of the class­room. “Par­ents of­ten think that their kids learn math in school, and that it’s sort of the school’s do­main.”

On the pos­i­tive side, Lynch and sum­mer learn­ing ex­pert James S. Kim, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at HGSE, ex­am­ined the ef­fects of a sum­mer math in­ter­ven­tion in which stu­dents were given ac­cess to an on­line math pro­gram and asked to do three “playlists,” or work­sheets each week.

Even with this well-in­ten­tioned in­ter­ven­tion, math scores showed no im­prove­ment at the end of the sum­mer. Lynch and Kim con­cluded that just as­sign­ing work­sheets with­out men­tor­ing or guid­ance, prob­a­bly won’t cor­rect sum­mer math loss. Fam­i­lies, say the re­searchers, will need to adopt a more in­te­grated ap­proach. Here is where we be­gin to see what fac­tors, other than time alone, can make a dif­fer­ence.

What to do then? Lynch and Kim, among other sug­ges­tions, rec­om­mend “math games,” such as Yahtzee, Racko, Blokus, Mo­nop­oly and Set, which all rely on skills nec­es­sary for math: count­ing, cat­e­go­riz­ing and build­ing al­go­rithms of a kind. Even play­ing with blocks and as­sem­bling jig­saw puzzles can help younger chil­dren learn spa­tial skills and rec­og­nize pat­terns.

But sum­mer is over now and the dam­age has been done. Is it too late to re­trieve the lost learn­ing? Not at all, say re­searchers. When shop­ping, help kids cal­cu­late change or dis­counts.

When watch­ing sports on TV, talk about what play­ers’ statis­tics mean. When cook­ing, try halv­ing or dou­bling a recipe, and help kids cal­cu­late the new pro­por­tions.

Kids ex­posed daily to real-world arith­metic build con­fi­dence and com­pe­tency and un­der­stand­ing that arith­metic is rel­e­vant to their every­day lives.

While there is not much hard in­for­ma­tion about how long it takes to rec­tify the ef­fects of the sum­mer slide, teach­ers (es­pe­cially math teach­ers) will tell you that redi­rect­ing stu­dent minds to mat­ters geo­met­ric, al­ge­braic or arith­metric soaks up from two weeks to a month of class time.

In­ter­na­tion­ally, the sum­mer school break lasts from about six weeks in Aus­tralia and Ger­many to, in the case of Fin­land, two-anda-half to three months.

Given Fin­land’s well-known suc­cesses with in­ter­na­tional achieve­ment tests, that would seem to con­tra­dict fears about learn­ing loss.

So what fac­tors, other than time can make a dif­fer­ence to the sum­mer slide?

A fu­ture col­umn will ex­am­ine the ex­ten­sive role that par­ents in Fin­land play in ac­tively sup­port­ing their chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion 365 days a year. — Ge­off John­son is a for­mer

su­per­in­ten­dent of schools.

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