Tuesday, July 18, 2017

End Learning Loss: Rethinking Summer Break and the School Calendar

School's out for summer. School's out forever. Those are the infamous lines from Alice Cooper's song "School's Out" popularized in the 90s movie "Dazed and Confused." 

For millions of children, forever is only 10-12 weeks. Then in the immortal words of the Four Tops, "You gotta go back, back, back to school again."

Somewhere between the time the last bell sounds for the school year and the alarm clock rings signaling the first day of school, the knowledge acquired over the past nine months begins to seep out of children's brains.

Month 1...SEEP...Month 2...SEEP

Three months later, students return to school dazed and confused.

That's summer slide...the loss of knowledge over the summer.

We know this. We have data that pinpoints the exact population of students who fare worse during the summer months. Yet, we have made no real effort to improve the quality of education and prevent summer slide for these students.


Because that's the way it's always been. We can't change it now. Parents and the tourism industry agree that modifying the school would interfere with annual vacations. Besides, the traditional school calendar was created when children were expected to help harvest their family's farm.

Harvest...not in the 21st century...more like raiding their parents' refrigerator. In fact, the school calendar centered around farming has been debunked. During the mid-1800s, students attended school approximately 250 days a year compared to 180 that students attend today. According to de Melker and Weber:
By the late 19th century, school reformers started pushing for standardization of the school calendar across urban and rural areas. So a compromise was struck that created the modern school calendar...And none of the reasons for creating the current school calendar related to student achievement.

Court Cases Related to Segregation and Education Needs of ELLs

I believe it's important to note the history of this nation and student achievement, particularly during the early period of compulsory education. As we know, from the inception of this nation through the 19th century, the education of blacks was prohibited by law in several states, and the majority of blacks were practically illiterate. Native American children were stripped of their language and customs and were forced to attend government schools in an effort to have them assimilate into the burgeoning United State's dominant culture.

As public schools moved West in the 1840s and 1850s, like the Native Americans, assimilationists clashed with the values of the former Mexican citizens who believed their Spanish language, land, and citizenship were protected through the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. With the rapid Americanization of the new states of Texas (1845) and California (1850) officials established English-only policies and segregated schools for Mexican working-class children. California was no different where Chinese Americans, African-Americans, and Native Americans had to adhere to the following laws:
[The codes] let us keep our public schools free from the intrusion of the inferior races. If we are compelled to have Negroes and Chinamen among us, it is better, of course, that they should be educated. But teach them separately from our own children. Let us preserve our Caucasian blood pure. We want no mongrel race of moral and mental hybrids to people the mountains and valleys of California. (citing The Public School and Colored Children, S.F. EVENING BULL., Feb. 24, 1858, at 2).
The California School Law of 1860 stated that:
Negroes, Mongolians and Indians shall not be admitted into the public schools; and whenever satisfactory evidence is furnished to the Superintendent of Public Instruction to show that said prohibited parties are attending such schools, he may withhold from the district in which such schools are situated, all share of the State School Funds ... the trustees of any district may establish a separate school for the education of Negroes, Mongolians and Indians, and use the public school funds for the support of the same. 
In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court issued the landmark decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that upheld segregation of public facilities, including school systems, as constitutional under the doctrine "separate but equal". While we think of this decision as only pertaining to African Americans, Native Americans, Asians, and Hispanics were also segregated. Brown v. Board of Education (1954) was a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and declared state laws establishing separate public schools to be unconstitutional. Later, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided that the lack of supplemental language instruction in public school for students with limited English proficiency violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in Lau v. Nichols (1974).

Why Is This History Relevant? 

Unfortunately, the legacy remains.

This legacy is visible in my city where the desegregation of public schools paved the way to Fort Worth’s first private schools. Fort Worth is not alone in the founding of private schools to circumvent integration. We hear the same arguments today, but it's under the guise of "school choice" where parents don't want their children to attend school with "those kids" so they flee to their enclaves that lack any real form of diversity and inclusion.

Sixty years post-Brown v. Board, this urban flight has led our schools to be more racially and economically segregated than they were during the 1970s, and we're struggling to adequately teach English Language Learners (ELLs) forty years past Lau v. Nichols.

Today, public schools in the United States are majority-minority. The collective number of Latino, African-American, and Asian students in public K-12 classrooms has surpassed the number whites. More than half of these children are considered economically disadvantaged, meaning they're low-income. This is our new normal. The least that we can do is rethink how we educate low-socioeconomic students and children of color.

The Impact of Summer Break

Summer, summer, summertime, time to sit back and unwind...the temperature's about 88 (that was the east coast, not Texas). DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince reminded us that summer was all about playing, hanging out with friends, and enjoying the cool breeze. Summers are for family vacations, museum visits, endless trips to the amusement park, checking out books from the library that you actually want to read, barbecue, camps, and sleeping. Lots and lots of sleeping. 

It's been said that a child's zip code should not determine their destiny.

But it does. The unfortunate reality is not all communities or summer experiences are created equal. Summer learning loss can affect students of all backgrounds; however, it is more severe for low-income students whose families and community lack sufficient resources to provide educational opportunities that will meet their needs. Yes, there may be various summer camps in the community; however, parents may lack the funds and/or transportation to send their children to these enrichment classes. The day camps that are free or charge a nominal fee are usually just a few weeks then parents have to find another program. There may be a 9-week camp, but the hours aren't conducive to a working parent's schedule. The parent either needs to find someone to transport their child to and fro or pay an additional fee for extended care. There's no reprieve for those in or near poverty.

Source: National Summer Learning Association
Middle-class and upper-income students either experience no loss or they gain slightly in knowledge over the summer. While children whose parents don’t have the means to educate them throughout the summer, whether through camp, activities at home, daily reading, or summer enrichment programs, often return to school about one month behind where they left off prior to the summer break. If this trend continues every summer, a child will have fallen behind by more than a grade level by the end of elementary. 

NBC's Brian Williams on Summer Learning Loss

Revising the School Calendar

As we move towards a nation where people of color will make up the majority, we have to consider our investment in children and best practices to ensure that creating an environment where all children succeed is more than a buzz phrase. 

Last month, I attended a school board conference and two questions were raised regarding summer slide:
  1. Are we (the nation/education system) creating educational malfeasance by continuing to overlook the data of summer learning loss?
  2. Did real learning take place during the previous school year?
Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school. - Albert Einstein
Education...if you know anything about the education system, we are probably more data-driven than any other institution...data...data...data. Yet, what are we doing with the data if we continue to produce the same results? So how are kids forgetting what they learned or should have learned? It's those standardized test. We're just teaching to the test. Well, summer slide occurred before the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era. So, does that mean we should cancel summer? Not quite.

The National Association for Year-Round Education and other education reform advocates propose changing from the traditional calendar to a balanced calendar to minimize summer learning loss. It's not year round in the sense that children would go to school EVERY SINGLE DAY, but a model that takes the same 180 days that students are required to attend school and spreads the breaks throughout the year. 

Summer would be reduced to six weeks, with other breaks every six to nine weeks. I haven't taught under the balanced calendar model, but I read comments from parents and teachers who loved it. Educators said that they felt much more rejuvenated and parents and students felt that students retained more. As a former educator, that stretch from the first day of school to Thanksgiving break was BRUTAL. I'd gladly welcome a break between there. 

While modifying the school calendar hasn't taken off in popularity, the data reflects that it significantly minimizes learning loss, better scores on the annual state tests, increased grade point averages, and improved student and teacher morale.

As we focus on eliminating the achievement gap we must be willing to revisit the school calendar and utilizing other unconventional methods to improve the educational outcomes for children of color and low-income students. The economic prosperity of the United States depends on their ability to perform in 21st-century post-secondary society. It's imperative that the knowledge they gain today prepares them for the jobs of tomorrow.

“Whether educators have more time to enrich instruction or students have more time to learn how to play an instrument and write computer code, adding meaningful in-school hours is a critical investment that better prepares children to be successful in the 21st century.” - Former Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan (2012)

Further Reading

Kuo, J. (1998). Excluded, segregated and forgotten: A historical view of the discrimination of Chinese Americans in public schools. Asian LJ, 5, 181.

MacDonald, V. M., & Garcia, T. (2003). HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES ON LATINO ACCESS TO. The majority in the minority: Expanding the representation of Latina/o faculty, administrators and students in higher education, 15.

Staples, B. (2006, January 01). Why Slave-Era Barriers to Black Literacy Still Matter. Retrieved July 17, 2017, from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/01/opinion/why-slaveera-barriers-to-black-literacy-still-matter.html

Valencia, R. R. (2005). The Mexican American struggle for equal educational opportunity in Mendez v. Westminster: Helping to pave the way for Brown v. Board of Education. Teachers College Record, 107(3), 389-423.

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