In the mid-19th century, students did not see anything like the modern summer break. The rise of the summer break in schools is a product of a shift from rural to urban living. Early cities were hot and dirty. Parents who could leave the city to the cooler countryside did. This left schools half full and sweltering. With the rise of the summer heat also came the rise of diseases. Legislators saw that something had to be done about these two systems. The rural and urban calendars were blended together, with the urban need for a vacation in the summer becoming the dominant force in the schedule.
As the transition happened, questions were asked by those that studied education: what happens to student learning in those summer months? Many opinions emerged, but it was not until the 1990s when thorough research on the topic commenced. Harris Cooper and his colleagues published a paper called The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores: A Narrative and Meta-Analytic Review. This was the first paper to scientifically identify what many teachers knew — taking a break over the summer did impact child development. The paper called it the “summer setback” or, as we know it, the “summer slide.”
The researchers discovered that, of all the subjects, reading was the most vulnerable to the loss of levels. But not all students were equally as vulnerable. Upper- and middle-class students did not see the same losses that lower-class students saw. Without help, students in lower-income brackets could lose up to a full year of reading skills by the end of fourth grade. One reason that many experts felt low-income families lose more than their peers is access to resources. There are usually fewer books in the homes of lower-income families. Parents are generally working longer hours or have multiple jobs. This demand on their time makes it more difficult for them to take their children to the library or to read with them.
The problems caused by the summer slide typically manifest as students transition from third to fourth grade. Up until third grade, reading lessons are geared to teach students the mechanics of reading. When students move on to fourth grade, reading helps them learn lessons in classes like history, science, and English. If they are behind by fourth grade, there are grim statistics that become apparent:
- 1 in 10 will go to jail
- Those students are four times more likely to drop out of high school
- Only 1 in 27 will graduate from college
- A total of 86% will never earn more than minimum wage
These statistics are just the beginning of the possible outcomes for students with low literacy.
Lower-income families can stop the summer slide with a very simple solution. The number of books children have in their home is the best predictor of success as they go through school.
One reason that our program stresses children reading so many books over the summer is that it builds that home library without the student leaving home. Kids Read Now delivers self-selected books that children want to read. Even small home libraries encourage students to pick up books instead of turning on televisions or picking up digital devices.
There is a debate on whether or not to make school a year-round activity. While it would eliminate many of the issues that come from three months without school, many districts do not have the staffing or the resources to make it work. As long as we have a break for the summer, we will do all we can to ensure that no one slides back when the first bell rings in August!
The impetus for building student literacy is typically school-related. Teachers and administrators want them to be successful in school because they know the importance of early education on the child’s future.
There are also the state-mandated goals that measure student achievement and can affect the school district in many ways. Beyond those two significant incentives, there is a third one that is important to the student. Low levels of literacy have an impact on the student outside of the classroom. And not just their ability to get homework done.
Coming from a home where the parents struggled in school can inhibit the growth of a student. Parents with low levels of literacy tend to have lower incomes. With fewer resources, there is a higher probability of housing and food instability. Students without this stability concern themselves less with the grades they are getting and more with how will they provide the familiy their next meal. Possibly where they will be staying that evening.
Parents working hard to make ends meet do not have that extra time to spend speaking with their children or helping them with homework. One indicator of student success is their vocabulary as they come into school. In a study done by Hart and Risley, students in low-income families are exposed to just one-third of the words that students in professional families. And vocabulary is essential to student growth.
With time being at a premium in low literacy homes, the learning experiences children have there can also be limited. There are very few trips to bookstores, museums, libraries, or other areas students can have educational experiences outside of the school.
Those trips may be limited by geography; lower income houses are typically not located near these centers of learning. Another limitation is their connection to the community that can help them find these unique places.
Those with low literacy work hard to hide their lack of reading ability. They use isolation as a way to protect their secret, not being involved in their community or school. Staying separate from these resources may mean they miss valuable opportunities to help their students, or themselves, outside of school.
Staying healthy can also be a challenge. From reading labels on food to understanding the medicine a doctor prescribes, low literacy has an impact the general well being of a family. Even common health issues can be exacerbated when medication is not used correctly, causing the student to miss more time from class.
They are either ill themselves, or they may not be able to leave home because of a sick relative. Missing this time can put students further behind, adding to any frustrations they may be having in school.
Schools offer a unique opportunity to break this cycle of illiteracy. Building a love of learning in school may inspire the rest of the family to improve their literacy. Siblings may be drawn to mimic what their brother or sister is doing, and become interested in reading themselves.
They may become the readers in the house, helping parents interpret bills or introducing them to new places to go in the area. Getting a parent to build their skills, through inspiration from a child or working with them personally, is a mechanism that can stop that vicious cycle.
For many children, going to school is just one part of their daily ritual. They grumble get out of their comfortable bed, have breakfast, and are transported to school for a day of learning and spending time with friends. They receive their assignments for the day, then head home to complete them before they head to bed and get ready to complete the cycle the next day. That is the ideal: a stable base for children to build their education upon.
That is not the reality for may children. As of 2013, most students come to school from low-income households. They can leave for school malnourished and tired from sleepless nights in unstable homes. Heading to school can be dangerous as well, especially if their home is in a high crime neighborhood. School can add to the struggle when they cannot stay awake, are focused on their hunger instead of lessons, and have no time at home to complete assignments. Such a fragile base is difficult to build an education upon.
There are ways that the school itself can be a place to help students from low-income or unstable homes educate students in subjects beyond the three Rs.
One way was suggested over two decades ago by Dr. James Comer, a child psychologist from Yale University. He believed that “no significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” He developed a process called the Comer Process, known by some as the School Development Program. It is a system that looks after the whole student, helping them develop social and life skills in school along with being educated. Teams are built to help students manage their lives inside and outside of the classroom.
It takes a major commitment to apply the Comer Process to a school. There are many other options for schools to ensure that students are being supported for the time they are there.
- Building Relationships – You do not need to treat students as friends, but you do need to give them respect. A trusting relationship is a big step in discovering what is happening outside the classroom that could affect them inside of it.
- Formal Communication – Unless the home is highly religious, formal speech is not often used in low-income families. Most tests over the years are written formally, which makes them harder to understand for these students. Building this form of vocabulary is incredibly important over the long haul.
- Understand their Resources – By understanding what support a student has, arrangements can often be made by the school to offer what they do not have. Time and tutoring are usually the two things most students in low-income families need most.
- How to be a Student – Being a student is a skill that is not inborn; it is learned. Asking questions, planning assignments, and preparing for tests may not be taught in the home. Especially if the parents struggled in school. But it can be taught with other lessons.
Low-income students offer schools the opportunity to be a haven from their day to day life. They can help them with life skills they may not find at home, adding stability to what can be a very unstable existence. A stability to help them become lifelong learners.