Summer Slide. Brain Drain. Learning Leak. While it may sound like I’m describing a decaying water park, in reality these are terms used to explain the effect summer vacation has on young students and scholastic retention. If those terms don’t incite fear, they should. Students can lose more than two months of previous year math knowledge in the short time between signing yearbooks and picking out a first day of school outfit.
We have all seen the recent headlines mocking the United States in world education rankings when compared to other developed countries. According to the U.S. Department of Education, American schools average 180 days of instruction per year, versus countries at the top of the math rankings, such as Japan, which average 240. The additional 60 school days in the Japanese academic calendar prevent prolonged breaks that cause students to lose their skills in the absence of regular instruction. This gives students in high achieving countries more instruction time not only because they have more school days, but because their academic calendar eliminates the need to spend the first month back from summer break reviewing last year’s material. As a middle school math teacher, I find this kind of review unnecessarily time consuming and wasteful. I am always hopeful that my students have independently kept their minds sharp over the summer, but unavoidably I end up reviewing last year’s material for a solid month before I am able to expand into new concepts.
Johns Hopkins Center for Summer Learning has done extensive studies proving that because of the United States public school system time-line, kids are unable to preserve their math lessons from the year over summer break. This has become such an issue that many groups have begun calling for reform in the academic calendar. Even President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have called the traditional school system antiquated and inadequate. However, until taxpayers decide they want to fund an extra two months of schooling for our nation’s children, summer enrichment programs designed to bridge the gap are the best bet for concerned parents. After experiencing firsthand the effects of the summer slide, a fellow math teacher, Jesse Meyen, and I decided to create our own summer math program, The Beverly Hills Math Factor. Keeping kids entertained with fractions and times tables can be difficult enough during the school year however, so during the summer we take a much different approach to learning, incorporating technology such as iPads and inventing activities such as “Math Twister”. So far, we have found the kids to be very receptive to the kind of fun learning we are able to implement, making their retention unconscious and therefore more effective. Also, kids that have graduated from our program have commented on how much more comfortable they were with new math concepts than their peers. Until there are sweeping educational reforms to address the summer brain drain, our program and others like it will help to fill the gap that puts American students behind.
- Jeff Harris teaches math in Beverly Hills (www.bhmathfactor.com)