Summer slide affects student math skills
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.