Great disparities in achievement among children often have more to do with socio-economic level than intelligence. Children from higher-income families tend to travel more, have more access to books and learning materials, and have college-educated parents who provide educational opportunities and encourage academic pursuits.
And in the long weeks of summer, those disparities increase significantly.
In a June 3 article in the Wyoming Star-Tribune, education writer Elysia Conner cites studies showing that over the summer, students lose much of the learning they've gained during the school year - up to 2.6 months' worth, in some cases. And lower-income students are at the upper end of that statistic.
Conner cites further evidence compiled by the Wyoming Department of Education: "Research compiled by MetaMetrics indicates that while children from middle-class families average gains in reading achievement during the summer, children from lower income families tend to lose ground. Many students show loss of reading skill over the summer, and low-income students experience an average loss of more than two months."
Equal or even greater losses have been documented in math.
Some compare practicing math and reading skills over the summer to staying fit by regularly exercising.
"If you take the whole summer off, sometimes you're even starting at point zero again," says Julie Magee of the WDE in the Conner article.
These significant learning losses every summer are one reason schools nationwide are shifting to year-round calendars - usually, nine weeks on, three weeks off. (There are also variations, such as the modified calendar at my school, which shortens the summer break by three weeks and inserts those weeks and extended breaks throughout the school year.)
But for schools that have not yet made the switch to a modified or year-round calendar, there are ideas to help students retain and even increase learning over the summer.
For example, parents and teachers must encourage children to read. Honors and AP students have traditionally been assigned summer reading. But clearly, they are not the only ones who could benefit from summer reading.
As the Conner article notes, "Research by Harvard University's James Kim indicates that if children read 'high-interest, ability-appropriate' books during the summer, their reading skills can grow as much as their peers who attended summer school."
Children who have access to Kindles or some other electronic reader can find many free e-books to download. There are also sample issues of most online magazines and newspapers. I highly recommend Smithsonian Magazine for middle and high school students.
Many schools and public libraries offer summer reading programs. The Marshall County library system, for example, has a summer reading program that begins June 14. Aimed at toddlers through middle school students, the program rewards children for every 10 books they read. There is also a drawing for additional prizes at the end.
Libraries also offer free computer resources where children can "read" websites and other online material.
Here's a suggestion: Have your child of any age identify a topic to research over the summer. It could be a career, a favorite animal, a "bucket list" of fascinating places to visit, a genealogy, and so on. Search for books and online magazines on the topic, web sites, television documentaries, and more. Then have the child create a product or presentation on the topic.
West Virginia offers suggestions for all kinds of learning activities on its parent link. Check it out at wvde.state.wv.us/parents21/learningtools.html.
As Conner notes, "Every day is a chance to learn."
- Linda Shalaway, National Board-certified author of "Learning to Teach ... Not Just for Beginners" (Scholastic, 2005), teaches at Cameron High School.