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June 11, 1998
Leslie Rice, lnr@jhu.edu

Summer Slide in the City: A Case for Year-round Schooling?

Summer vacation is a kid's favorite time of year. But what impact does vacation have on children when they return to school? It depends on where they live, say two Johns Hopkins University researchers.

In one of the longest-running studies on what is called the "summer slide," Hopkins sociologists Karl Alexander and Doris Entwisle have followed 790 randomly selected Baltimore students since they entered first grade in 1982. The students, who are now about 20, come from different socio-economic backgrounds and were enrolled in about 20 schools around Baltimore City.

Rather than studying changes in test scores from one grade to the next, Alexander and Entwisle compared changes in test scores during the school months to changes that occur in the summer months. Gains or losses during the school months can be primarily looked at as the school's contribution to achievement while gains or losses that occur over the summer months are more likely the contributions of the family, economic and neighborhood circumstances.

What Alexander and Entwisle learned was that children in Baltimore's poor neighborhoods were learning at the same rate as middle-class students during the school year but fell much further behind during the summer. Children from more affluent families tended to enroll in summer camps, music or art lessons and were encouraged to attack summer reading lists. Poorer children had less to do in the summer and tended to forget more of what they learned during the previous school year.

The Hopkins sociologists found that when poor students returned to school, they would again learn at the same rate as the more affluent students. Nonetheless, that "summer slide" created wider and wider learning gaps with each year. By the end of fifth grade, the difference in verbal achievement between poor and non-poor students is more than two years; in math, it is a year-and-a-half.

"What the data shows is that the public school system is probably doing a better job teaching than they are generally credited with doing," says Alexander. "But when low-income students are cut off from school influence, they lose ground. We need to come up with some creative ways to put a stop to this free-fall -- whether through year-round schooling, juggling the school schedule so that it is spread out throughout the year, or through effective summer programs that keep kids actively engaged in learning over the summer."

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