ERIC Identifier: ED475391
Publication Date: 2003-05-00
Author: Cooper, Harris
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Elementary and Early Childhood Education Champaign IL.
Summer Learning Loss: The Problem and Some Solutions. ERIC
In the early years of formal schooling in America, school calendars were
designed to fit the needs of each particular community (Gold, 2002). Some
communities had long summer breaks that released children from school in spring
to help with planting and in fall to help with the harvest, while urban schools
sometimes operated on 11- or 12-month schedules. By 1900, migration from the
farm to the city and an increase in family mobility created a need to
standardize the time children spent in school. The present 9-month calendar
emerged when 85% of Americans were involved in agriculture and when climate
control in school buildings was limited. Today, about 3% of Americans'
livelihoods are tied to the agricultural cycle, and air-conditioning makes it
possible for schools to provide comfortable learning environments year-round
(Association of California School Administrators, 1988). Nevertheless, the
9-month school year remains the standard.
CONCERNS RAISED BY THE LONG SUMMER VACATION
In 1993, the
National Education Commission on Time and Learning (NECTL, 1993) urged school
districts to develop school calendars that acknowledged differences in student
learning and major changes taking place in American society. The report
reflected a growing concern about school calendar issues, especially for
students at risk for academic failure.
Educators and parents often voice three concerns about the possible negative
impact of summer vacation on student learning. One concern is that children
learn best when instruction is continuous. The long summer vacation breaks the
rhythm of instruction, leads to forgetting, and requires a significant amount of
review of material when students return to school in the fall. Also, the long
summer break can have a greater negative effect on the learning of children with
special educational needs. For example, children who speak a language at home
other than English may have their English language skills set back by an
extended period without practice, although there currently is little evidence
related to this issue. Children with some disabilities may also profit from
summer programs. While there is little evidence that a student's IQ is related
to the impact of summer break (Cooper & Sweller, 1987), Sargent and Fidler
(1987) provided some evidence that children with learning disabilities may need
extra summer learning opportunities. Many states mandate extended-year programs
for students with learning disabilities because they recognize these children's
need for continuous instruction (Katsiyannis, 1991). And finally, tying summer
vacation to equity issues, Jamar (1994) noted that "Higher SES students may
return to school in the fall with a considerable educational advantage over
their less advantaged peers as a result of either additional school-related
learning, or lower levels of forgetting, over the summer months" (p. 1).
RESEARCH ON SUMMER LEARNING LOSS
A research synthesis
conducted by Cooper et al. (1996) integrated 39 studies examining the effects of
summer vacation on standardized achievement test scores. The 39 studies included
13 that could be included in a meta-analysis (a statistical integration) of the
results. The meta-analysis indicated that summer learning loss equaled at least
one month of instruction as measured by grade level equivalents on standardized
test scores-on average, children's tests scores were at least one month lower
when they returned to school in fall than scores were when students left in
The meta-analysis also found differences in the effect of summer vacation on
different skill areas. Summer loss was more pronounced for math facts and
spelling than for other tested skill areas. The explanation of this result was
based on the observation that both math computation and spelling skills involve
the acquisition of factual and procedural knowledge, whereas other skill areas,
especially math concepts, problem solving, and reading comprehension, are
conceptually based. Findings in cognitive psychology suggest that without
practice, facts and procedural skills are most susceptible to forgetting (e.g.,
Cooper & Sweller, 1987). Summer loss was more pronounced for math overall
than for reading overall. The authors speculated that children's home
environments might provide more opportunities to practice reading skills than to
practice mathematics. Parents may be more attuned to the importance of reading,
so they pay attention to keeping their children reading over summer.
In addition to the influence of subject area, the meta- analysis indicated
that individual differences among students may also play a role. Among those
examined in the studies used in the meta-analysis, neither gender, ethnicity,
nor IQ appeared to have a consistent influence on summer learning loss. Family
economics was also examined as an influence on what happens to children over
summer. The meta-analysis revealed that all students, regardless of the
resources in their home, lost roughly equal amounts of math skills over summer.
However, substantial economic differences were found for reading. On some
measures, middle-class children showed gains in reading achievement over summer,
but disadvantaged children showed losses. Reading comprehension scores of both
income groups declined, but the scores of disadvantaged students declined more.
Again, the authors speculated that income differences could be related to
differences in opportunities to practice and learn reading skills over summer,
with more books and reading opportunities available for middle-class children
(see also Alexander, Entwisle, & Olson, in press).
THREE REMEDIES FOR SUMMER LEARNING LOSS
Three approaches to
preventing summer learning loss are offered most often: extending the school
year, providing summer school, and modifying the school calendar.
Extended School Year. Most of the arguments offered in support of an extended
school year invoke international comparisons showing that the number of days
American students spend in school lags behind most other industrialized nations.
For example, the NCETL (1993) reported that most students in the United States
spend between 175 and 180 days in school each year, while students in Japan
spend 240 days in school.
Arguments against extending the school year generally question whether more
time in school automatically translates into more time on task. For example, the
National Education Association (1987) questioned whether additional time in
school might simply lead to additional fatigue for students. Many argue that
unless additional time is accompanied by changes in teaching strategy and
curricula, the added time may be frittered away (Karweit, 1985). Related to this
argument is the notion that adding, for example, 5 or 6 days to a school year
represents only a 3% increase in school time. Hazleton and colleagues (1992),
based on work by Karweit (1984), suggested that 35 extra days would be needed to
produce a noticeable change in student achievement. Thus, given other options
for spending education dollars, opponents ask whether money might not more
effectively be spent on improving the quality of instruction or reducing class
Summer School. Summer learning loss also can be used to argue for increasing
students' access to summer school. A research synthesis reported by Cooper et
al. (2000) used both meta-analytic and narrative procedures to integrate the
results of 93 evaluations of summer school. Results revealed that summer
programs focusing on remedial, accelerated, or enriched learning had a positive
impact on the knowledge and skills of participants. Although all students
benefited from summer school, students from middle-class homes showed larger
positive effects than students from disadvantaged homes. Remedial programs had
larger effects when the program was relatively small and when instruction was
individualized. As would be expected from the summer learning loss literature,
remedial programs may have more positive effects on math than on reading.
Requiring parent involvement also appeared related to more effective programs.
Students at all grade levels benefited from remedial summer school, but students
in the earliest grades and in secondary school may benefit most.
Modified Calendars. Finally, summer learning loss also could be used to argue
for modifying the school calendar to do away with the long summer break. Many
proponents of school calendar change call for modified arrangements in which
children might or might not attend school for more days, but the long summer
vacation is replaced by shorter cycles of attendance breaks.
A meta-analysis by Cooper et al. (in press) focused on studies of school
districts that modified their calendars but did not increase the length of their
school year. The most important finding of the synthesis was that the quality of
evidence available on modified school calendars made it difficult to draw any
reliable conclusions. Moreover, the evidence from the meta-analysis revealed
ambiguous results. First, 62% of 58 districts reported that students in the
modified calendar program outperformed students in the traditional calendar
program. Second, the effect for 39 school districts favored modified calendars,
but the size of the impact, though significant, was quite small. There was
stronger evidence that (1) modified calendar programs do improve achievement for
economically disadvantaged or poor-achieving students; (2) programs implemented
more recently may be showing improved results; and (3) the students, parents,
and staffs who participate in modified calendar programs are overwhelmingly
positive about the experience. There are also specific actions that policy
makers can take to improve community acceptance of modified calendars, such as
involving the community in planning the program and providing high-quality
In sum, what do we know? (1) It is clear that
students do forget mathematics material over the summer, and poor children lose
reading skills as well. (2) Extending the school year by a few days is a
questionable intervention, but we should not rule out the possibility that
substantial increases in the length of the school year coupled with
corresponding curricula reform could have a positive impact on student learning.
(3) Summer programs are an effective intervention for purposes of academic
remediation, enrichment, or acceleration, and a knowledge base has accumulated
that can help make the most of summer school. (4) Modified school calendars may
have a small positive impact on student achievement and a more noticeable impact
on the achievement of disadvantaged children, but the existing research contains
design flaws that render conclusions tentative at best. Further, there are many
variables that might influence the effect of calendar variations that are yet to
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Alexander, P., Entwisle, D. R., &
Olson, L. S. (in press). Schools, achievement, and inequality: A seasonal
perspective. In G. Borman & M. Boulay (Eds.), SUMMER LEARNING: RESEARCH,
POLICIES, AND PROGRAMS
. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Association of California School Administrators. (1988). A PRIMER ON
YEAR-ROUND EDUCATION. Sacramento, CA: Author. ED 332 271.
Cooper, G., & Sweller, J. (1987). Effects of schema acquisition and rule
automation on mathematical problem-solving transfer. JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL
PSYCHOLOGY, 79(4), 347-362.
Cooper, H., Charlton, K., Valentine, J. C., & Muhlenbruck, L. (2000).
Making the most of summer school: A meta-analytic and narrative review.
MONOGRAPHS OF THE SOCIETY FOR RESEARCH IN CHILD DEVELOPMENT, 65(1), 1-118. EJ
Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K., Lindsay, J., & Greathouse, S. (1996).
The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and
meta-analytic review. REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, 66(3), 227-268. EJ 596
Cooper, H., Valentine, J. C., Charlton, K., & Melson, A. (in press). The
effects of modified school calendars on student achievement and school community
attitudes: A research synthesis. REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH.
Gold, K. M. (2002). SCHOOL'S IN: THE HISTORY OF SUMMER EDUCATION IN AMERICAN
PUBLIC SCHOOLS. New York: Peter Lang.
Hazleton, J. E., Blakely, C., & Denton, J. (1992). COST EFFECTIVENESS OF
ALTERNATIVE YEAR SCHOOLING. Austin: University of Texas, Educational Economic
Jamar, I. (1994). FALL TESTING: ARE SOME STUDENTS DIFFERENTIALLY
DISADVANTAGED? Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Learning Research and
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and learning. EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP, 41(8), 32-35. EJ 299 538.
Karweit, N. (1985). Should we lengthen the school term? EDUCATIONAL
RESEARCHER, 14(6), 9-15. EJ 320 591.
Katsiyannis, A. (1991). Extended school year policies: An established
necessity. REMEDIAL AND SPECIAL EDUCATION, 12(1), 24-28. EJ 425 645.
National Education Association. (1987). WHAT RESEARCH SAYS ABOUT SERIES:
EXTENDING THE SCHOOL DAY/YEAR: PROPOSALS AND RESULTS. Washington, DC: Author: ED
National Education Commission on Time and Learning (NECTL). (1993). RESEARCH
FINDINGS. Washington, DC: Author. ED 372 491.
Sargent, L. R., & Fidler, D.A. (1987). Extended school year programs: In
support of the concept. EDUCATION AND TRAINING IN MENTAL RETARDATION, 22(1),
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