We tend to think of summer as a time when kids relax, play around, laze in hammocks, and generally try to stay as far as possible from anything remotely educational. But a decades-long Johns Hopkins study shows that kids learn a lot over the summers, even when they don’t necessarily notice that it’s happening. And those summers can make all the difference, especially for disadvantaged students.

For the Beginning School Study, Hopkins researchers followed Baltimore City Public School kids for more than a quarter-century — from first grade through adulthood — looking at how summer experiences affected academic performance. Those lazy summers turned out to be hugely important.

All students in the study — whether they were economically disadvantaged or not — made comparable strides during the school year. Surprisingly enough, it was the summer months that made the difference. While school wasn’t in session, better-off students were going to the library, taking lessons, visiting museums, playing soccer, and just generally taking advantage of resources that helped them learn and develop. Disadvantaged kids didn’t have the same access to these programs — and so fell behind.

During those months, disadvantaged students started to lag significantly in reading, so much so that they were nearly three years behind their peers by the end of fifth grade. And, according to the study, nearly all those losses were due to the difference in how they spent their summers.

Baltimore has started to address the issue with programs like YouthWorks, which offer jobs and financial literacy training to high school students. Over at the Audacious Ideas blog, Brenda McLaughlin suggests that private camps and programs reserve a quarter of their spots for disadvantaged students: 

“While the economics of this proposal may seem improbable, consider the economics of our current school year. We spend nine months and tremendous amounts of energy and resources to promote learning and achievement for all students while school is in session; and then we step back for three months only to let 1/3 of that investment fizzle away. We have created an incredibly inefficient system in terms of how we invest our resources.  What many people don’t realize is that we will pay for this inefficiency regardless, whether it’s proactively through summer scholarships, or retroactively through social services and lost tax revenues.”

How else could schools, students, and parents help make up for the summer learning gap?

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