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Summer learning loss and the achievement gap

By Josey Landrieu

You might wonder, 'What does summer have to do with the achievement gap and overall educational disparities?' Well, have you heard of summer learning loss?

Summer learning loss occurs when children and youth are not actively engaged in high-quality learning opportunities between school terms. Poor and minority children experience this disproportionately as they are less likely than their better-resourced peers to have educational opportunities such as summer camp, educational trips or even visits to local museums.

Although summer is a season of relaxation, it is just as important for learning as fall, winter and spring. Even here in Minnesota, where we pride ourselves on our high quality of life, we have one of the largest educational achievement gaps in the country between white and non-white students.

A 2009 research brief by the National Summer Learning Association highlights some of the consequences that summer learning loss has for youth who are often already at a disadvantage:
  • Most students lose about two months of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer months. Low-income students also lose more than two months in reading achievement, despite the fact that their middle-class peers make slight gains.
  • About two-thirds of the ninth-grade achievement gap between lower and higher income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities during the elementary school years. As a result, low-income youth are less likely to graduate from high school or enter college.
  • Not only children's minds are affected disproportionately, but their bodies, as well. Most children--particularly children at high risk of obesity -- gain weight more rapidly when they are out of school during summer break.
  • Parents consistently cite summer as the most difficult time to ensure that their children have productive things to do.

As Jeff Smink of the National Summer Learning Association wrote last year, "We cannot afford to spend nearly 10 months of every year devoting enormous amounts of intellect, energy and money to promoting student learning and achievement, and then walk away from that investment every summer".

This has got me wondering about ways to address this issue. How can we work to diminish the summer learning loss that most students, especially those in poor and disfranchised communities experience during the summer? What are ways we could implement high quality learning opportunities during the summer for these youth? How can we learn about the needs of parents and communities when it comes to summer programming for their youth?

What should the role of community after-school programs be in eliminating educational disparities? How can they address summer learning loss?

-- Josey Landrieu, former assistant Extension professor, program evaluation

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  1. Nice blog on the importance of summer learning opportunities. It is an area of educational inequality that we must recognize and address. June 21st is Summer Learning Day and you may want to check out the resources and ideas there. It can be found at

  2. Thank you Dale for such an important and relevant resource!

  3. Pam Larson NippoltJune 6, 2012 at 5:11 AM

    Josey - This is a timely and very important post - you have successfully engaged us in thinking about the issue of summer learning loss and the educational disparities in Minnesota on a day when I personally have been thinking more about my camping and vacationing plans! Thank you for re-directing those of us who cannot afford to stop focusing on these issues.
    One very practical method that aids in diminishing the summer learning loss is helping young people with fewer resources "get around" to access learning opportunities, and that is proving harder to do. Local community members and youth-serving organizations fought hard to get enough funding to keep the Circulator - a free bus with regular stops around the neighborhood and at youth-serving locations - running on St. Paul's West Side. To learn more about how this was reported in The Voice, go to
    Scraping together a few thousand dollars to transport young people to learning opportunities during the summer months is tough on a tight city budget - but is it really so tough to find $15,000 if we are really mobilized as a society to prioritize learning for youth? Can't we find these resources if we put our thinking caps on?
    I think about the money invested by single families with higher incomes who prioritize getting their children around to high quality learning opportunities during the summer. Let's put this in context - one family can easily surpass $15,000 investment across the costs of camps, lessons, tutoring, and a caring adult to drive the car between all of these locations for one or two children. All children deserve access and this problem can be solved. The resources exist.
    It is time to come together around this issue and bring many resources to bear on this gap. Thank you Josey for your voice and for connecting these dots in your post. Pam

  4. Pam, thank you for the comment and I'm totally with you on the need to better allocate resources so all youth have access to summer learning opportunities.
    This came up for me recently when I was part of a grant review panel and one of the requirements for grantees in order to qualify to apply for funds was the "year round" programming. They were required to offer summer programming...this doesn't solve the problem, but at least it's one way in which funders are trying to influence the availability of such experiences for all youth.
    I also think that often, parents and youth lack information on what's available during the summer (especially around learning opportunities that are either free or very affordable). One other strategy woud be to think how information could be effectively communicated to those in need. Josey

  5. I just caught up on your blog. Very interesting. I especially appreciate how you included content on the mind and body. I recently read an article in Forbes magazine discussed intelligence and challenged readers to expand their definition to include emotional intelligence, moral intelligence, and bodily intelligence. It was written with adults in mind but the implications could be applied to youth as well. The latter, bodily intelligence, refers to what you know about your body, how you feel about it, and take care of it, which reminded me of your comments regarding summer weight gain for some children. It is something to consider as we attempt to support the “whole” child.
    The article can be found here

  6. Thanks Jen for commenting and sharing the article. I agree on the importance of considering mind and body; as our work centers more on 21st century skills these things will be more relevant to the programming we do with young people and how we consider mind, body, and healthy living as an important piece of that work. Thanks!

  7. There are many great games out there that take advantage of their ability to engage children by providing learning environments that kids voluntarily participate in. We have designed a math learning software tool that is not only personalized to each individual, but is also incredibly fun for kids. This isn't like any other learning game out there - it uses principles present in adult games to keep children engaged longer. If that isn't enough, results have shown a 20% average increase in skill level over 4 weeks.
    Why not prevent summer brain drain by signing up for a free trial account here.