What They’ll Do Over Summer Vacation
The end is in sight for most Minnesotan students right now. The MCAs are – finally – over. The last rounds of district-specific testing are wrapping up. For older students, finals loom, but beyond that last bundle of assessments is summer vacation. In a few months, students will reflect on what they did over summer vacation, but we can make some projections right now.
Some children will spend a week or two or four at one of the Concordia Language Villages scattered around northern and western Minnesota. Some will go to a camp organized by the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, the YMCA, their church, or some similar organization. Some will spend time volunteering in their communities.
Some children will read a great many books, whether at home or at their local library. Some will play a sport of one stripe or another. Some will work a summer job. Some will travel with their families, whether to Lake Itasca, the Grand Canyon, or Paris.
Some will watch hours of television, and some will play hours more of video games. Some will help care for siblings, cousins, grandparents, or other relatives. Some will spend most days outside their homes with their friends. Some will spend long stretches doing absolutely nothing at all.
Some will keep in practice with the skills they've learned in school this year, and some will try to make up what they missed by going to summer school. Some will leap ahead with the help of tutors, academic camps, or involved family members. Some will let their skills lapse and show up to school in the fall months behind where they are now.
If national trends are any indication, students from middle class and wealthy families are more likely to maintain or advance their academic level this summer. Students from low-income families, on the other hand, are more likely to regress. In the fall, then, we'll see an achievement gap that's widened from where it is right now.
This difference in academic performance as a result of summer break is well-documented. It is one of the more significant contributions to the income-based achievement gap, but it's also not something addressed by most schools in our state. Instead, most schools' summer programming is limited to remediation. Maintenance and enrichment aren't on the schedule.
There are some exceptions to be found in both traditional public schools and charter schools. Some schools operate on a 45-15 schedule (45 weekdays in school followed by 15 weekdays on break) that shrinks the length of summer break and reduces the opportunity for significant loss. Other schools simply add days to the school year in June, August, or both. This is one example of what's known as “extended learning time,” and it can do great things for kids when it's implemented right.
More time in school is not a magic solution, of course. The time must be well-spent, balancing substance with students' psychological needs. Being in a fast-paced classroom for ten hours a day from August 1 through June 30 is a recipe for burnout in most students, but thirty extra days of free time in the gym isn't the answer, either. Finding the right middle ground is a challenge.
We must equip our schools to grapple with that challenge for the students that need it. The students who are already achieving academically are doing fine without the extra time, so it's a matter of helping schools and districts target the students with the greatest need for more time. Once those students are targeted, programs need to be designed and resourced appropriately if they are to succeed.
This means making sure schools have enough money either to pay summer staff or to pay their entire staff for more days, depending on the particular approach taken. It also means that staff need to be invested in the extended learning time approach while it's being designed and once it's under way. Either one of these can be hard to secure, and finding adequate funding will be particularly difficult if Minnesota stays on its current bare-bones path for education funding.
If we want to get serious about giving students in need the learning opportunities most likely to lead them to success, we need a state government that's willing to invest more in education and local leaders who can use that money to fuel the right kind of intervention. Progressives need to make sure that our state legislature is more likely to act by the time the next budget-setting session comes around. That means putting pressure on legislators and candidates now to commit to changing Minnesota's course when it comes to supporting schools. It's what our students deserve.