Q&A: Curbing the ‘summer slide’

Critical Care

“Summer is the most unequal time of the year for millions of students who lose access to critical services and learning opportunities when the school doors close for summer vacation,” says Matthew Boulay, founder and interim CEO of the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA). For nearly 25 years, the Baltimore-based nonprofit has been the nation’s hub on summer learning research, policy, and promising practices to curb the so-called “summer slide.”

Boulay spoke with ASBJ Associate Editor Michelle Healy about the importance of extending learning beyond the traditional nine month-school year and some of the ways that summer learning can make a difference.

Can the “summer slide” be avoided?

The evidence on this issue is so compelling, both on the summer learning loss side— particularly what happens to our most vulnerable kids, our lowest-income kids—and on the effectiveness of summer learning. I often say summer learning is one of the best researched and yet most unrecognized problems in education. We still tend to overlook it, even with the evidence that we know.

Which programs work best?

We talk about formal programs and informal programs. Formal ones are typically six-to-eight week programs that, if done in a creative and engaging way, are the gold standard. They allow for time over the summer for art, music, science. They’re fun and hands-on. Teachers don’t have to worry about tests or pacing; students don’t have to worry about homework. But at generally $1,000 a student per summer, funding is limited and they’re not scalable. Five or so years ago, we started looking at informal, more cost-effective programs like keeping school libraries open. In Oregon, we ran a pilot that cost less than a $1,000 all summer. In some cases, students were already getting free lunches in the school building, but the library was closed. Kids were walking past a closed library. That doesn’t make sense, right?

How can districts get started?

Start with, “What is happening with our students over the summer?” In nine out of 10 cases, there’s no data to answer that question. Begin by measuring summer learning or summer learning loss in your students. That will give you a sense of the scope of the problem. Tax payers make an investment in their schools. To walk away from that investment for three months of the summer and let 10 percent to 20 percent of the gains made from that investment slip away doesn’t make sense.

It’s important to “sell” summer learning?

Every school has back-to-school night in the fall. Move that same model to May or June and have teachers talk to parents about how we can work together to support summer learning at home and through programs in the community.

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