The following post also appears today on my personal blogspace, Teaching Out Loud.
I was standing in line at my local business supply store and was jolted into the realization that summer vacation is just around the corner. There, taking its place a prominant place at the cash, stood a cardboard display of student workbooks, mainly focusing on literacy and numeracy skills. The sign attached to the display warned of the dangers of Summer Learning Loss (SLL) and assured consumers that regular practice using this particular product would give children an edge on this ugly and pernicious disease.
When I returned home I checked my email only to find an alert that @acampbell99 had responded to a blog entry that @sheilaspeaking had written back in September. The topic? Summer Learning Loss!
As May pushes towards June and the final days of the school year rapidly approach, it’s likely that you’ll hear from the major tutoring companies as they do their darndest to plant the seeds of anxiety in the minds of parents throughout the province and around the country. And although there are likely some students who do benefit from remedial summer programs, I am convinced talk of summer learning loss really has very little to do with kids. Instead, it has more to do with politics and profit.
From a political point of view, governments that have constructed platforms and made promises related to increasing test scores have come to see the two months of summer vacation as a threat to their vision. Ministry-funded literacy and numeracy (!) camps operate under the belief that “more of the same—only more of it” will provide the anecdote to students requiring a great deal of review and extra attention come September.
Publishing and tutoring companies (a very rapidly growing franchise opportunity in both Canada and the United States) seek to leverage the fear that parents have that their children will “fall behind” and hand over the money to allay that fear.
Now don’t get me wrong. As a teacher, I know that summer vacation is a time when routines relax for many of us, including our children. The six or seven hours a day normally spent in the tightly regulated and highly programmed place we call school is substantially different from the lazier, freer and less-focused weeks of summer. It takes some work to “turn the ship around” once September arrives. Makes sense. That said, I have never spent more than a couple of weeks, framing the context for a new school year, checking in on student learning and reviewing some of the concepts that students would need for the work on which we were about to embark.
The Web is full of suggestions for keeping minds active and engaged over the summer months. Some, like enrolling in library programs and summer camps, taking field trips with your children, having kids research upcoming vacation destinations clearly advantage those families that are able to devote the time and money to these options.
This resonates with the research that suggests that lower income children suffer the summer slide more than those from middle or higher income brackets.
It puzzles me, however, why we seem to be satisfied with band-aid solutions to what is so obviously a structural problem. Our reluctance to imagine other ways of organizing our schools, including the rhythm of the year, has limited the degree to which we are able to go deep in our thinking. So, here are a few “memes” that I would like to present as we prepare to move into our “summer thinking”. I would love to engage in some conversation about these, and about any ideas that you might have.
First, let’s take a serious look at year-round schooling and let’s make student learning the number one criteria when weighing its value. The first time I heard about an alternative way of looking at the school year was in 1977 when I was visiting Florida for the first time. In talking to a server at a local coffee shop, it was explained to me that, in that particular county, students were schooled under a 45-15 system. That meant that they were in school for nine weeks, and on vacation for three. Teachers took one week from their three-week break to engage in professional development and planning activities.
Under a 45-15 system, the same number of instructional days are allotted, but the entire rhythm of the year is changed, allowing for some immediate benefits in terms of planning and implementing learning opportunities, engaging in more in-depth professional collaboration and, of course, eliminating the whole notion of summer learning loss. I, for one, would give up a lot—including a good portion of my 240 minutes of planning time per week—to teach in this type of environment.
Second, I think that a more serious look at the idea of looping of students and teachers would eliminate some of the time required for acclimatization. If teachers and students were assigned to each others’ care for, at the very least, a two year period, the chances of hitting the ground running in September would be increased. Throughout my career, I have had several years where I have received most of the same students the following year. Knowing that we would be seeing each other again for another year made the whole learning experience a little more relaxed and, in my opinion, a little more genuine. When students returned in September, I knew the strengths and weaknesses of most of my students, and they knew mine as well. As a result, the time required to get up and running and September was greatly reduced.
Finally—and I realize that I’m beginning to sound like a bit of a broken record on this one—I really think that much of the conversation around things like Summer Learning Loss is based on the idea that there is an enshrined set of skills and pieces of knowledge that defines success for a 5 year-old, 6 year-old and 12 year-old. I think that revisiting the battery of grade level expectations that have been rather arbitrarily inflicted on both students and teachers will pay dividends throughout the system. A more fluid conception of the connection between age and knowledge may just change our thinking about the idea of Summer Learning Loss.
The way that our current school system is structured presents us with both the perception and reality of Summer Learning Loss. Lots of people are invested in the fact that it is a problem that needs to be solved, a disease that needs to be remedied. But the real solution might just lie in imagining a new way of thinking about some of the most stubborn assumptions that we make about school. It’s a process that will be contentious for some, uncomfortable for many and one that may even threaten the profitabililty of others.
But let’s do some imagining!