I noticed that npr (National Public Radio in the USA) devoted half an hour’s air time yesterday to the subject of the summer ‘recess’.
Although they have a longer summer break than we have here, research in the USA indicates that ‘all kids, regardless of the income level of their family, experience over two months of setback in math computation skills during the elementary school grades; and low-income kids lose over two months of reading performance each and every summer of their elementary school years, while middle-income kids typically stagnate or experience a slight gain in reading performance’.
This makes sense because without regular practice one can expect performance to suffer.
What do we do about it? On npr, Ron Fairchild, a founder of the Smarter Learning Group and former CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, argues what many middle income families know only too well: that the summer can be an opportunity to provide children with intellectually engaging activities – language learning, reading, summer classes of all descriptions – while still taking time out to pursue enjoyable pastimes. You can watch Ron talking about summer reading on YouTube.
Some schools offer ‘head start’ programmes. In fact, many years ago when I was a rookie secondary teacher, I took part in one such programme designed to introduce a specially selected number of the new intake of Year 7s to the school and members of the staff. This was ground-breaking stuff in those days! Feeder primary schools were visited, with children being chosen on the basis of social and academic need. For two weeks, both staff and pupils enjoyed the wide variety of activities and trips laid on.
Looking back, I think the most powerful impact of the two-week schedule was that the children had time to establish with the staff warm and productive relationships which carried over into academic life when the pupils started school proper. So much so that, in my experience, the staff felt that their time had been so well spent they didn’t mind giving up a week or sometimes the whole two weeks of their summer holiday.
On the npr radio programme, Jessica Cunningham, ‘chief academic officer for KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) DC Schools and founder of the KIPP DC WILL Academy, a charter middle school here in Washington’, describes how they do a three-week summer school for fifth graders. The shorter day than normal school includes mixed activities, ‘a nice balance of the rigorous academics and the fun stuff, the playing on the monkey bars at recess and all that’. The ‘rigorous academics’, she explains, doesn’t just mean maths and reading. It would also introduce children to music and games and PE, for example.
Cunningham feels that children make real gains in the program and that many go on to ‘perform with – just right along with the top kids in the city, many of them are also coming from some of the more affluent households’.
So, as well as dusting off the bikes and rooting out the swimming costumes from the bottom drawer this summer, maybe it’s time to get hold of some good maths and reading books.