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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University April 16, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 30
Summer Vacation Hurts Poor Kids' Chances for Academic Success

The April 2007 issue of American Sociological Review offers new insights as to why low-income children lag behind their more privileged classmates in high school graduation rates and college attendance. In "Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap," Johns Hopkins University sociologists Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle and Linda Steffel Olson find the difference in children's future academic success can be explained, in part, by their experiences during their summer vacations.

The study contends that there is a summer learning gap between lower- and higher-income children, and it begins during elementary school. Higher-income children's home environments are resource-rich; they are more likely to have access to magazines and books, and to have their parents read to them, than are lower-income children. This gap accumulates over the years and, once the children get to high school, results in unequal placements in college preparatory tracks. The gap also increases the chances that children from low socio-economic families will drop out of high school and decreases their chances of attending a four-year college.

The researchers studied 790 Baltimore public school children from the first grade through age 22. They used testing data from the Baltimore City public school system records to track learning patterns, school records and student reports to identify students' high school curriculum placement, and student interview data to determine high school completion and college attendance.

According to the authors, these findings are significant because when disadvantaged children get to high school, their achievement test scores--which play an important role in academic placement--are far below average, compared to those of higher-income children. Because of lower scores, these children are then associated with higher risks of dropping out of high school and not continuing on to college.

"What we are able to do is trace back in time the disparities between the two groups of children and, to a very substantial degree, we trace the difference back to summer learning differences over the elementary school years," said lead author Karl Alexander, the John Dewey Chair of the Sociology Department.

Alexander said he believes that programs aimed at decreasing the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income students should begin in elementary school or even earlier. To be most effective, however, such programs should provide year-round attention to disadvantaged children to offset the out-of-school conditions that hold them back.

"What it boils down to is that we need to stop these children from falling behind," he said. "We have to help them have experiences over the summer months that build academic skills, such as high quality summer school programs, or year-round schooling. In a nutshell, disadvantaged children depend more on school-like experiences in acquiring academic skills in order to succeed, whereas higher-income children can and do acquire these skills at home."

The article also points out that some of the punitive measures in the federal No Child Left Behind Act may be misdirected, as the assessment tests measure both academic-year learning and summer learning, over which the schools have no control.

For a copy of the study, go to: April07ASRFeature.pdf.


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