The Long, Hot Summer Slump

Last month’s Time Magazine cover story on “The Case Against Summer Vacation” sparked quite a debate online, addressing the learning loss that occurs during summer (the “summer slump”), a loss that puts disadvantaged children at a lifetime risk for significantly lower achievement.

During the school year, children from all socio-economic groups progress at similar rates, but when that last bell rings, the summer slide begins. More than 40 studies have provided compelling evidence for this pattern. According to a major study out of Johns Hopkins University, millions of low-income kids find themselves without access to mind-stimulating activities in the summer. They not only lose a great deal of knowledge from the previous school year, but on average, regress 3 months in reading skills and 2.6 months in math. By the time they reach high school, most have fallen three grade levels behind their higher-income peers and many will not graduate or go on to college.

Lower-income children, in both summer and after school hours, exhibit higher drop out rates, greater social and behavioral problems, and higher use of alcohol and drugs. They also lack opportunities for physical activity that are needed to overcome our nation’s distressing obesity problems. These behaviors can be prevented with proper mentorship; for examples, see Harlem Children’s Zone, Summer Advantage USA, and Breakthrough Collaborative. Due to ever-increasing economic struggles, parents have even less capacity to supervise their kids. The need for funding more quality out-of-school time programs and resources is greater than ever.

However, equal resources are not enough, according to Susan Neuman, professor of education at the University of Michigan. Surprisingly, increased access to technology can, in some cases, actually widen the achievement gap, benefiting higher income children more in the end. At public libraries, Neuman and Celano (2006) found that middle and upper-income children tend to interact more pro-actively with books and computers, usually prompted and guided by parents to navigate through the computer, or to find and read a new book together. The researchers also observed that these kids tended to choose more challenging material and read higher quantities of text. Lower income children, on the other hand, find themselves at a loss with how to utilize the same technologies, and find appropriate books.

A solution to the summer slump may just boil down to scaffolding, a teaching strategy by which students are guided and coached by a more knowledgeable agent (e.g., parent, teacher, older sibling.) This mentor provides learners with support for new skills or concepts until they achieve competence and can continue to develop these skills on their own. In addition, existing technology offers opportunities for kids to engage with virtual coaches. With youth (ages 8-18) spending more than seven hours with media per day, they are already being influenced by virtual peers and online relational agents (computer controlled characters who might, for example, converse with the child.) In fact, lower-income children spend more time immersed in media and games than their upper-income peers. Given the prevalence of today’s virtual and networked worlds, there are more and more opportunities for designers to build scaffolding functionality into game mechanisms. Engaging narratives can feature characters that encourage and guide disadvantaged children and help them learn-there’s been a lot of development in this area, but designers need to go deeper.

In his summer slump piece, Time Magazine reporter, David Von Drehle writes that “[Low-income] children without resources languish on street corners or in front of glowing screens.” How can we, as media producers, best use these “glowing screens” to support this population of underserved kids and redirect their opportunities for the future?


Further Exploration:

Download Can Video Games Promote Intergenerational Play & Literacy Learning? a Cooney Center publication that reviews the latest research and design principals on adult-child game play patterns that help to accelerate learning.

Visit The Electric Company site, which provides quality parent and teacher activities to support literacy development.

See more research at the National Summer Learning Association

Read the full Time Magazine story

Read Sesame Workshop CEO/President, Gary Knell’s Blog on the Summer Slide


Marj Kleinman is the Director of Digital Media at the Cooney Center, leading the digital media and marketing efforts for the Web and other platforms. She is also a Media-Maker with 17 years of experience writing, producing, and marketing award-winning educational children’s content for companies including Sesame Workshop, Scholastic, PBS Kids, Noggin, Nick, and Time for Kids. Marj holds a Master’s in Educational Psychology from NYU and a B.S. from Emerson College in Theater Production and Film.



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