The Truth About Summer Learning Loss
July 7th, 2022
Summer learning loss, the idea that students lose some of their academic knowledge over summer break, has been a topic of debate and discussion among education professionals and scholars for quite some time. While some studies claim that students can lose up to two months of mathematics knowledge and three months of reading knowledge over the summer, the true focus seems to be on how socioeconomic and environmental factors affect learning loss during the summer months and how to reduce the gap (National Summer Learning Association, 2017).
Is Summer Learning Loss Real?
The original studies that came out around summer learning loss, such as the Beginning School Study (2003), have been met with skepticism by education scholars, primarily due to the fact that our definitions of progress and academic achievement have changed (von Hippel, 2019). In the past, summer learning loss was primarily measured by standardized test scores. Today, we know that learning and achievement deserve a more nuanced approach. Some students are simply not strong test takers, but shine in other areas. Additionally, there may be an adjustment period following months away from the testing environment.
Based on more recent data, early childhood researchers have found that the gaps which are often referenced in summer learning loss studies are generally established before children begin kindergarten (von Hippel, 2019). Kuhfeld, Condron, and Downey (2019) also found that White students tended to lose more academic knowledge over the summer than Black students, while Black students tended to learn slower during the school year. These achievement gaps were seasonal fluctuations of a disparity that began early on in the students’ educational experience.
Therefore, while the data gives some validity to summer learning loss, scholars are beginning to focus more on how this can be used to help disadvantaged students rather than focusing on methods for preventing summer learning loss overall.
Why Should School Leaders Be Thinking About Summer Learning Loss?
Addressing and discussing summer learning loss can help educators identify where achievement gaps might exist within the district and the school environment. While Kuhfeld, Condron, and Downey (2019) use race as a primary distinguisher, their research also seems to outline that socioeconomic factors and the quality of student environments outside of the classroom play a large role in summer learning loss and achievement gaps.
One key finding highlighted in von Hippel (2019) is that all students, regardless of socioeconomic class, tend to learn at a slower rate during the summer. Therefore, rather than viewing summer as a chance to prevent learning loss, educational leaders can use this opportunity to reduce the achievement gap between students and provide resources to ensure students are supported when outside of the school environment.
While summer learning loss could potentially affect student progress, it also provides a great opportunity for disadvantaged or struggling students to catch up to their peers. Kuhfeld, Condron, & Downey (2019) found that the achievement gap between Black and White students tends to shrink during the summer and grow during the school year, providing a potential advantage to students in need of additional support.
Ways to Address Summer Learning Loss and Achievement Gaps
Von Hippel (2019) found that, when students are consistent with attendance, summer programs can help bridge the achievement gap. What education leaders can take away from this is that it could be beneficial to develop summer education programs for disadvantaged youth, helping them to stay on-par with middle-class students.
Another potential remedy is adjusting the school year calendar. Implementing a year-round academic calendar has been shown to have little impact, due to the fact that students still spend the same amount of time outside of school during various vacation periods. However, extending the school year by a few weeks has been shown to improve summer learning loss among low-income students (von Hippel, 2019). These are important factors to consider when planning for the upcoming school year.
Regardless of the debate over summer learning loss research, it seems that the data is consistent in regards to one point — summer offers an opportunity to bridge the learning gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students. This data can help educational leaders plan intervention programs and summer programs that support the academic success of all students and address ongoing disparities in the education system.
Alexander, Karl L.; Entwisle, Doris R. (2003). The Beginning School Study: 1982-2002. Harvard
Dataverse, 3. https://doi.org/10.7910/D
Kuhfeld, Megan; Condron, Dennis; and Downey, Douglas (2019). When Does Inequality Grow? School Years, Summers,
and Achievement Gaps. NWEA Collaborative for Student Growth Research Brief. https://www.nwea.org/content/uploads/2020/03/researchbrief-when-does-inequality-grow-school-years-summers-and-achievement-gaps-2019.pdf
Summer By The Numbers: The Achievement Gap – What Happens to Children During the
Summer? (2017). National Summer Learning Association. http://www.summerlearning.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/SummerByTheNumbers.pdf
Von Hippel, Paul T. (2019). Is Summer Learning Loss Real? How I Lost Faith in One of
Education Research’s Classic Results. Education Next, 19(4), 9-14. https://www.educationnext.org/is-summer-learning-loss-real-how-i-lost-faith-education-research-results/