A weekend interview with Gary Huggins, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association
School's out for summer. Some kids might not crack open a book for weeks. That's to their disadvantage, though. For when they snooze, they lose -- many of the things they've already learned, that is. That means when they return to classes in August, their teachers get to spend time reviewing and reteaching rather than moving ahead. Parents can help their children avoid summer learning loss. Gary Huggins, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association at Johns Hopkins University, spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the importance of staying sharp over the long break.
This is the week when all our schools let out and summer begins. So it just stands to reason that it's time to talk about what kids should be doing to make sure they don't forget everything they know. ... What do you see as the concerns that someone should have about summer beginning?
The concerns are significant. Most kids, research is showing us, lose two months' of math skills during the summer. And low-income kids also lose more than two months' worth of reading skills during the summer. Interestingly, during that same time middle income and advantaged kids typically gain a little bit on the reading side, even though the math loss is the same as the low-income kids. That's a significant chunk of learning time. And if you put it in perspective of the achievement gap, those two months' worth of loss over the summers accumulate. Research from Johns Hopkins has shown that summer learning loss is responsible for half -- they say two-thirds -- of the ninth-grade achievement gap in reading.
Why does this loss happen?
It's interesting. There are probably two different stories going on there. For low-income kids, they're not always given the opportunities to read, or focused on reading, or spending time in the library, or given guidance on these things. Maybe both parents are working. Lots of different factors can contribute to that. And I think that's why you see that difference in more advantaged kids. They have habits of spending time in libraries and lots of books around and parents reading to kids and parents and kids talking about what they are reading. On the math side, math is such a practice-driven skill that if you're not working on it, you're not learning, you're not advancing. Then you can atrophy, you can lose that skill over time. I think the reason you see similarities between the income groups there and less of a gap in the loss is because not a lot of people sit around and practice math skills in the summer.
So is that what we should be doing with our kids? Telling them to sit down with math or Khan Academy or something like that?
Khan Academy is a cool example. That's one thing. One of the things we've seen more and more of, and it's really important, is seeing districts and schools begin to understand the cost of summer learning loss to their academic bottom lines. They're on the hook for performance, and they're accountable for results. And you think about that picture of pushing the boulder up the hill for eight or nine months, and then having it roll back downhill for three months. That's not only costly to kids and their lives and limiting their opportunities, that's costly to schools and their accountability. So a lot of districts are embracing the need to do something. They're partnering with other organizations. They're putting together programs to serve, especially kids who are underserved in other ways. ... I would offer that's a big important thing to do, is to provide those opportunities for kids who don't normally have them.
I would also say parents need to be intentional and think about the learning equation when they do sign up their kids for summer camps and put them in summer programs, so that there's a learning component there. That when parents travel with their kids they're very intentional about where they're going and they ask their kids about what they're seeing and what they're learning. Reading with your kids is obviously important, particularly at the younger ages. But as kids are reading ... on their own, talk to your kids about what they are reading. And not only in terms of tracking and making sure that they are reading, but talk to them about the substance of what they are reading. Make sure they are actually getting it and comprehending and those things.
Taking advantage of community assets is important, whether it's libraries, museums, zoos and things that are free that provide learning opportunities. There's fascinating things happening in New York and Chicago with what are called Hive learning projects. ... They connect kids and teachers with free community assets ... and then use technology to connect and provide learning opportunities. So there's lots of ways to get at it. The most important thing is to recognize the cost of not doing anything. ...
What do you do about kids who generally have the attitude that 'I'm on break. I don't have to do anything'?
It's really interesting when you think about how we think of summer. It has one of those backdrops in our agrarian history when maybe we'd be going out to harvest corn. But it has become sort of an entitlement. People are used to it. That's when they plan their vacations and that sort of thing. I think the key there is to make sure that summer learning programs can't be just more school. One of the things we think is critical to get more summer learning happening is to get past the idea that it's punitive, or that it's remedial, or it's just for the kids who didn't get it. You look at our performance targets for kids. We're not hitting them. ... So we've got a way to go to maximize all of our learning time, whether it's summer or after school or whenever we offer them. And given that kids don't have to go to these programs ... we have to be extra thoughtful about making them engaging and attractive and use them as opportunities to teach in innovative ways. ... Do experiential learning and some of the things we're not able to do when kids are in school, so that we have kids leaning into these programs as opposed to leaning back. They want to be a part of them. They want to be there. If they're just more school, they're not going to be as effective, and even less effective if the kids who don't want to come don't come.
I keep thinking about Phineas and Ferb. Like, what are we going to do today? Is there anything to that? Just finding what's going to be fun and exciting that we're going to do today?
... Yeah. That's a great image if you think about it. That's the way we need to approach summer learning. You don't have to make fun and learning mutually exclusive. In fact, if you leave the fun out, particularly in summer, you're not going to get the learning, likely. ... I'll go even further with that image to say, there's so much energy and investment and talk about innovation in education today. And it's so hard to push that into the school year as we know it. We do what we do during the school day, and maybe there's room for changing this or that here or there. ... Beyond that, summer learning programs need to be aligned with what school districts and schools are trying to accomplish. ... We need to make sure summer learning programs help them get kids to their academic bottom line. ...
What would be the two or three most important things you would recommend parents do with their kids over the summer to make sure that they will be ready to go back to school again and not be two months behind?
I think the most critical thing is reading. Make sure your kids are reading. Have an eye on what they are reading. And engage them on what they are reading so they are not just reading things passively. Finding ways to get them engaged in math and science, STEM kinds of learning, is important. That's an area where more creativity is called for. Whether it's a camp where they build and launch rockets and do those kinds of things. But finding ways to make that kind of learning engaging. There are impressive and cool ways to supplement and track parent efforts. There's Book Adventure, which is a free program for parents that kind of guides them. ... If there is a structured summer learning program to engage them in, start there.