An Interview with Steve Peha: Is there a “Summer Slump” and if there is, what should we be doing about it?

Jul 11, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico


1) Steve, as you know, many educators have been pointing their fingers at various “causes” as to why the educational system does not seem to be doing well. Now, it seems that everyone is concerned about the loss of gains during the summer months. What is your take on this?

Blame is great, isn’t it? You can blame me for not answering this question very well; I can blame you for asking it; your editor can blame us both for not doing what he thought we should have been doing. And guess what we all get for that? Nothing.

So I think it’s important to understand the context in which this annual discussion of the “summer slump” or “summer learning loss” occurs. It occurs in the context of blame, and gets us very little as a result.

Kids have been taking summer breaks forever because we’ve always had an agricultural school schedule. Only now, when we feel a need to use blame to deflect responsibility for our educational problems, has it become an annual issue of discussion.

What little research we have on this seems very logical to me:

1. For high-SES kids, there appears to be no summer slump, and for some there are even gains. For example, a high school kid I know is at computer programming camp. He’ll be writing iPad apps in two weeks — something he could likely never accomplish at school because it’s unlikely his school will ever offer professional-level training in computer programming. A junior high girl I know is spending the summer in a Latin America country. She’ll return nearly fluent in Spanish. As she enters high school, she will already be more proficient than most of the seniors in her district. Rich kids live rich lives. And school — even the very best schools — can’t come close to competing with the richness of real life experience.

2. For middle class kids, there seems to be little or no “slump”, but no gain either. Their out-of-school lives afford them a degree of stimulation and challenge that is at least the equivalent of what happens to them in school. Some may read more or less over the summer; some may travel or take on a project; some may work; others may just play with their xBox 360; but most of what we know about “summer learning loss” suggests that for most kids, there isn’t any loss at all.

3. Really poor kids, however, may in fact have a richer, more stimulating, and healthier environment at school than at home. But this doesn’t mean we have “summer learning loss” going on. It simply means what most of us would naturally expect: that being around a lot of caring adults, in a safe and reasonably stimulating environment, is healthier overall for some of our nation’s most disadvantaged kids than hanging out at home or wherever they end up hanging out.

When we use the term “summer learning loss” or “summer slump”, we’re probably committing a fallacy of reification — or the making of a “thing” where no “thing” actually exists.

Do kids really “lose” something when they leave school? Well, if in just 8-10 weeks a significant amount of something important vanishes —something that they spent 36 weeks acquiring — then what they acquired in those 36 weeks probably wasn’t very well-learned in the first place, wasn’t meaningful enough to become lodged in long term memory, or wasn’t valuable enough to be reinforced by regular use in the world outside of school.

Does this reflect the loss of something important in the summer or does it reflect the lack of a gain of something important during the school year?

It’s interesting, too, that while we fret about “summer learning loss”, we don’t rejoice at how quickly kids recover apparently lost information. Whatever they lose over 8-10 weeks in the summer, they seem to pick back up (assuming they have decent instruction) in one or two weeks back in school. We could be celebrating “fall learning gain”. But then we wouldn’t have something to blame, would we?

The concept of losing knowledge or skill over periods of disuse makes sense and is something that happens to all of us throughout our lives. The issue, however, is whether this loss matters very much.

For example, I played chess when I was a kid. I was a little above average for my age. But I remember that my final rating was almost 1500 when I quit at the end of high school. I haven’t played chess in almost 30 years. Has there been some loss? Yes. I can even measure it very accurately on my little iPad chess program which rated me around 1150 for the first few games I played on it last month.

So over 30 years, I lost 350 rating points. That’s huge. It took me from the age of 11 to the age of 16 to make that gain originally. But three weeks later, guess where my rating is now? Almost back to 1500. And I’m only playing casually here and there as I kill time in airports or try to fall asleep at night.

So what if there is some loss for some kids? Is our teaching so bad that we can’t catch kids back up in a few days or so? Maybe it is. And maybe that’s what the “thing” is. Maybe the “thing” isn’t “summer learning loss” it’s “fall teaching inefficiency.” And maybe that’s where our tendency to blame the summer for our problems begins.

I’m being a bit facetious here but “fall teaching inefficiency” is just as reasonable an explanation.

Or maybe the problem is that kids don’t adjust well to the rigidity of school as compared to the flexibility of summer vacation. Maybe they just get out of the habit of barking like seals and doing tricks on command all day — and different sets of tricks every 45-minutes.

The ultimate takeaway is this: even if “summer learning loss” is a real and serious thing, it still doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. Would going to school more days or more hours produce better results? Probably. Could we lengthen the school year and the school day? Sure we could. Will we? Only in very limited circumstances.

We know, for example, that kids who go to KIPP schools get about 50% more instruction time and do quite a lot more homework, too. For this extra effort they make statistically-significant gains over similar kids who put in the usual number of hours on the typical academic timetable. But this probably has more to do with what KIPP is doing with kids’ time not just the fact that they’re giving kids more of it.

So the real opportunity in this issue isn’t figuring out how to pin the blame for poor student performance on too much vacation. The most important question isn’t “What should we do about summer learning loss?”; it’s “What’s the optimal amount of time for kids to be attending school and doing school work?” and “What’s the optimal set of activities kids should be pursuing during this time?”

Knowing the answers to these questions would have extraordinary impact on local, state, and national policy. Among other things, we might find out that some kids benefit from being in school more, while others benefit from being in school less. After all, isn’t it highly unlikely that somehow we all magically need exactly the same amount of time in school in order to realize our potential?

Let’s also keep in mind, that any community that cares about this issue can run a year-round schedule. The “45/15” schedule has been in use in thousands of schools around our country for years. In this model, kids get the same 180 days but with short breaks of 15 days in between 45-day quarters instead of near-back-to-back quarters and a long summer break. This schedule is no secret. And it requires only school board action and simple operational logistics to pull off. Yet almost no one wants it.

So, here we have a viable, low-cost, low-effort solution to whatever problems we think “summer learning loss” might be causing, but 99% of America couldn’t care less. Yet each year massive amounts of media, just like this interview, flood the infosphere about the potential dangers of “summer learning loss”.

2) Are there some students, perhaps some with exceptionalities, that DO lose a lot of what they have learned over the summer months?

Any kid with serious motor-coordination or long term memory-related problems might lose quite a bit. But these would be kids with very serious and clearly diagnosable issues. And, again, what they lost would be directly related to what they had gained. (You can’t lose something you never get in the first place, right?)

Consider something simple, like the kindergartener who has the fairly common problem of gripping a pencil incorrectly. A little daily practice helps almost all children overcome this in a few weeks or months. But at home, most parents don’t have the time or the inclination to make sure their kids are using pencils much at all, let alone holding them in an optimal fashion.

So if a kid with a pencil grip problem had just conquered it on the last day of school, that kid might lose some ground across 8-10 weeks of time at home with nary a writing instrument to grab onto or anyone to show them how. But if that same kid was just ignored in school, and never helped to improve his grip in the first place, he wouldn’t lose anything over the summer because he never would have received anything relative to his problem during the school year.

Kids can only lose things if they have them. And, to be fair, we can only be sure they’ve lost certain things (like the ability to accurately multiply whole numbers up to 12) if they had mastered that skill well before the school year ended. If a kid leaves school in June with 70% mastery of a task and returns in August with 62% mastery is that really a big deal?

Finally, kids whose home lives are physically unsafe or emotionally unhealthy might seem to return to school in worse shape than when they left it. But here again, this wouldn’t be about missing school, it would be about missing something more fundamental—a happy, healthy, and engaging home life.

Is that “summer learning loss” or is it “childhood living loss”? Either way, we’re still asking the wrong question.

The right question, and the real opportunity we keep ignoring, is studying what kids could be doing with their time (during the school year and during vacation) that would help them live optimally fulfilling lives. Rather than focusing our energies on negative things, why not study positive things, and then make sure kids have access to them?

3) What about reading rate, reading comprehension- particularly if kids are NOT reading- is there any evidence of skill loss?

Again, this depends a lot on what kids have learned in school—and, for very little kids, whether they have reached certain crucial points in their reading development.

Reading is particularly interesting because, in general, once we learn it, we don’t forget how to do it. But there are certain things, like decoding and fluency, for example, that appear to be learned in discrete stages.

That is, being a partial decoder may make it hard to improve your reading on your own. Similarly, kids with low fluency usually don’t read very fast, don’t understand what they read, and therefore don’t read very much because reading isn’t very enjoyable.

For these kind of “threshold” issues, time away from regular practice can be problematic. But once kids get over a particular threshold, they rarely slide back in across what is really a relatively short period of time over the summer.

Just because I’m kind of a nerd, and a literacy nerd at that, I’ve actually tracked my reading rate informally throughout my life. As a kid, I did it just to keep myself from being bored to death by all the awful textbooks we had to read in school.

My reading rate by about the end of elementary school was somewhere between 150 wpm and 200 wpm. Not bad. But a little slower than most of my classmates. In fact, by high school, I was one of the slowest readers in any of my classes.

Most adults can easily crank along at 250 wpm or more. Some folks, like my mom, might have rates as high as 450-600 wpm. And don’t even get me started on legitimate speed reading techniques. Let’s just say I was a slow reader and leave it at that.

Guess what? I’m still a slow reader. After 40+ years of reading (and I read more than any other human being I know — and have the Amazon bills to prove it!), I still read at exactly the same rate I did when I was ten years old. My fluency hasn’t changed a bit either. And my comprehension has only increased because I’ve added so much background knowledge over the years.

So, no loss for me. And this despite many periods in my life where I hardly read at all other then environmental print.

But what if you’re a second grader sputtering along at a rickety 50 wpm — and making many mistakes as you attempt to decode unfamiliar words? Let’s say you’re just getting the hang of things as school ends but that you haven’t quite crossed the threshold. Let’s say you live with your mom and she works two jobs. Let’s say she’s semi-literate, there are no books in the house, nor newspapers or magazines, and most of what you do all summer is watch TV. Then, yes, you’ll probably be slightly worse at reading when you return to school in the fall.

But only slightly worse. And once again, with good instruction, that “loss” can be recovered in a short period of time.

Again, though, the key is good instruction, isn’t. What if this kids instruction had been just 10% more effective during the school year such that he had made it over an important threshold a month or so before leaving school. And let’s say that when he returned to school, his next teacher was even better than that. The issue of “summer learning loss”, already suspect in many situations, wouldn’t be an issue at all with even slightly better instruction—especially in reading.

The real problem is that odds are low for poor kids that they’ll receive good instruction in reading from year to year. And keeping them in school 365 days a year might not even help that much if they continued to receive poor instruction.

So, like most discussions we have these days about how to help kids learn more effectively, the answer comes ‘round once again to better instruction. If that second grader had made solid progress in reading fluency by January instead of by June, the “loss” over the summer, even with all the TV watching, would likely have been much less. And the recovery of that “loss”, with good instruction at the start of third grade, would be nearly immediate.

4) How about basic habits and study skills? What happens during those lazy hazy crazy days of summer?

Fortunately, many of those habits are indeed lost. I say fortunately because many of the traditional study habits we teach kids in school are not very helpful in promoting learning.

Take note-taking, for example. I never use it, and kids seem to learn much better as a result. Most of the kids I work with do better listening closely to me when I teach them something. I also encourage them to read carefully and consciously without interrupting their reading by taking notes.

Then, once they’ve done their best to understand the information covered, we write questions we’re still unsure about and statements that we think represent the most salient points.

We then go back over the information, answer the questions, validate the points, and produce a single common set of notes that I can print out or that every kid can copy down. In formal lecture-style teaching, one of the best practices is to give students the notes ahead of time.

So if, across the hazy, lazy days of summer, kids became mysteriously hazy about how to take Cornell notes, this might be more of a blessing than a curse. And if their teachers studied the workings of long term memory, and taught kids the science of memorization (as opposed to the folklore kids get today), learning would improve, retention would increase, and once again good teaching would render “summer learning loss” less of an issue.

What we have to be honest about regarding the habits of school and “study skills” is that virtually none of these things was developed during a time when we knew very much about how human beings learned. Nor have many of these approaches to learning ever been found to be very helpful — relative to other approaches we now know quite a bit about but often refuse to use.

For example, one study found that kids retain more information during reading if they simply pose the question “Why?” to themselves after reading each sentence. This is a tedious way to read, and not something we would recommend, in general, but it does show that a particular kind of conscious thought — in this case, questioning — tends to improve reading comprehension.

As far as I know, this is not a recognized traditional “study skill”. Nor is it a “basic habit” we ingrain in kids at school. Yet teaching kids to ask good questions of what they read has obvious intuitive value and is very easy to do.

Another research finding about studying is that it’s better to study in shorter chunks of time and in different locations than it is to study for longer periods of time in the same location. So, an hour spent studying in one’s bedroom is not as effective as three 20-minute sessions in three different locations. But, of course, this is exactly the opposite of what school tells us. School tells us we do our best work sitting in the same seat, never getting up even to stretch, sometimes for an entire class period.

So if kids “lost” some of the “study skills” or “habits” of school over the summer that might not be a bad thing. But the best thing would be if their teachers gave them skills and habits that improved their learning during the school year.

5) My local library has some exciting things going on—poetry and book readings. But how many parents get their kids to the local library?

I don’t know the stats on that. I will say that many more parents I know are making much more use of their local public library because of the tight economy. But this probably isn’t hitting the kids who would benefit the most from more library use. It’s probably just hastening the demise of Barnes & Noble.

First of all, if you’re very poor, your neighborhood probably doesn’t have a library. Second, you may not have an adult to take you to a library far from your home. Third, you might not like reading very much because, again, chances are very high that if you are very poor, you have received very poor reading instruction.

So the “let’s just get ‘em to the library” solution doesn’t make much sense in light of the realities our most “library-needy” kids face.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with libraries. But we kid ourselves when we think that having more of them, or getting more kids into them more often, will really make up for things like poor instruction at school or a lack of support at home.

But here, too, we have a marvelous opportunity to learn something important: What kinds of library activities help kids learn effectively? Isn’t it amazing that we have thousands of libraries all over the country, filled with thousands of librarians, and running thousands of interesting programs, but we have no idea at all what programs actually contribute to kids’ learning? Why haven’t we studied this? It certainly wouldn’t be hard.

6) Some kids are on the Net during the summer months- but are they learning anything?

A few curious kids are probably learning how to download porn. More enterprising types might be developing madd skillz at Texas Hold ‘em and using their parents’ credit cards to stake themselves to a few hundred hands of high stakes poker. And I’ll bet that thousands of kids are getting scary-good at World of Warcraft.

But most of the kids I know are spending their Internet hours on Facebook and other social sites where they “digi-hang” with friends.

There are certainly many ways kids could learn things on the Internet during the summer months — or any months. And, again, it would be easy to study this, to know what these things are, and to provide kids with more access to them, but we seem to be more interested in worrying about “summer learning loss” than in doing something about it. (Which is ultimately what tells me that “summer learning loss” is not a real problem — or at least one we’re interested in fixing.)

Also, I don’t think we should be so quick to discount the learning value of most of what kids do on the Internet. OK, the porn and the gambling aren’t great ideas. But kids who spend a lot of time on Facebook are engaging in the social commerce of the future. They are, at times, solving problems (even in games we think are silly) and sometimes, if they blog, participate in discussions, or use their time to create things and post them for others, they are involved in at least moderately intellectually stimulating acts.

Media maven Clay Shirky calls this “Cognitive Surplus.” As he points out, many of us adults spent endless hour watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island or Saturday morning cartoons. The current generation is more likely to be on YouTube than the Boob Tube — and many kids will be making videos, and commenting on videos, not just watching them.

Shirky’s point is that a generation or two ago, much of our free time was spent in passivity. Today, because of the Internet, kids are much more active. The brain power they are using to interact on the Internet now forms a “cognitive surplus” that many of us expended watching television or just watching the grass grow.

It might be argued that a little more passivity wouldn’t be bad for kids who seem live rather fast-paced lives. But we shouldn’t automatically assume that just because kids are spending time on the Internet that they aren’t emotionally and intellectually engaged in valuable ways.

Here again, however, another study suggests itself: “What types of Internet activity would be most beneficial to kids?”

7) What have YOU been doing this summer?

Writing my tail off. I’ve developed a new program for educators called “Opportunity Learning”. Starting something new from scratch is always exciting for me. So I’ve been putting in about 100 hours a week writing new workshops, creating training modules, and — just this past week — giving the first Opportunity Learning workshop.

I’m also launching a new educational venture by adapting the highly successful Agile software methodology for use in school management, new school creation, and school turnaround.

There’s an interesting connection, I think, between what I’m doing this summer and the issue we’re discussing in this interview.

Summer is my time to get real work done. During the school year, I’m often traveling and training. I love the work. But my schedule doesn’t lend itself to long uninterrupted periods of high-quality creation.

So, I use my summers for mammoth projects. And, as you might expect, this is where I do my best work and get my best learning done. I often work a 14-hour day on a single aspect of a single project — and then put in 2-3 hours of background reading late at night before bed.

Summer is a great time for me, especially for developing knew skills and acquiring new knowledge.

Summer has the same positive effect on many kids; it’s their time for big projects and the intense pursuit of intensely interesting things.

We could design school to be like this. But we seem to be afraid that if kids don’t learn small amounts of miscellaneous state-sanctioned information about many different topics that the United States will cease to be a global economic power in the world.

Certainly, there is much to be said for breadth of knowledge. But I would like to see some part of the school day, probably at the end of the day, carved out so that kids could receive adult guidance in pursuing their most passionate interests.

The thing is, we know we want kids to be passionate about something when they leave school. But we don’t encourage this while they’re in school. Perhaps the best solution of all to the “summer slump” is something we might call “passionate pursuits”. If we helped kids explore their passions during the school year, many would probably continue to develop those passions on their own over the summer.

8) What have I neglected to ask about the “summer slump” as some call it?

I think we’ve all neglected to ask why it is that every year we devote time and energy to something that is so trivial relative to so many other issues in education.

First of all, we’ve established that the “summer slump” is not a universal phenomenon affecting all kids.

Second, we’ve established that good instruction renders it essentially irrelevant.

Third, we’ve established that we don’t have to worry about it at all if we simply go to “45/15” annual school scheduling.

Fourth, we’ve established that we have little interest in investigating, through research, most of the logical questions that arise around this issue.

And fifth, as you pointed out at the beginning of this interview, “summer slump” seems to have arisen primarily as a phenomenon of blame. As such, it’s usefulness for advancing the cause of education is severely limited.

I’m interested in shifting the dialog from “summer slump” to “summer pump”. The summer is a great time to pump kids up for extraordinary learning experiences. School, especially as we set it up now, is becoming less and less efficient. Until very recently, we’ve been putting in more and more resources and getting about the same learning out.

By contrast, real life is becoming more fascinating all the time owing mostly to new media and global interconnectedness via technology. School is still “place-based” but learning isn’t anymore.

I can learn a foreign language riding on a bus. I can contribute my “cognitive surplus” to disaster relief in Haiti or Japan from my front porch. I can consume information of almost any kind from almost anywhere. And best of all, I can direct my learning experience myself — with no teachers to tell me when I need to move on to the next activity and, perhaps best of all, with no test to have to take at the end.

Today, when kids aren’t in school, they have the chance to see learning for what it really is: an extraordinary life opportunity of individual expression and personal exploration. Contrast this with the way school is rapidly becoming an exercise in state-mandated conformity and preparation for standardized tests.

There are many people in our country who argue that we must make the school year longer in order to remain globally competitive. In general, I support more time for kids in school. But if we changed the way we study learning — attempting to answer questions like the ones I’ve posed in this interview — we might find ways to educate more kids more effectively with less seat time.

And that’s an idea that seems more worthy of our attention than the “summer slump”.

Steve Peha is the President of Teaching That Makes Sense Inc., an education consultancy specializing in literacy, assessment, and school leadership based in Carrboro, NC.

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