Amherst Bulletin, August 7, 2009
By Steve Rivkin and Catherine Sanderson
Alice Cooper's lyrics capture the euphoria of the final day of school and onset of those carefree summer days. However, a growing body of evidence shows that the summer holiday comes with a cost, as students lose some of what they learned during the school year. And critically, such summer fallback is not distributed equally among all our students: economically disadvantaged students typically experience much larger declines than do children from higher income families with college graduate parents who tend to read more and enjoy more opportunities for academic enrichment during school vacation. In terms of race differences, some research suggests that summer fallback accounts for virtually the entire growth in the achievement gap during the elementary school years. Although it is difficult to pinpoint the specific factors that widen the achievement gap, evidence indicates that children from lower income families without college graduate parents on average read less and experience less academic enrichment at home over the summer.
So the question becomes, how well does Amherst live up to its social justice commitment in terms of its effort to reduce summer fallback? A recent report from John Hopkins University's Center for Summer Learning finds that simply reading four or five books during the summer is large enough to prevent a decline in reading scores. This study along with other research suggests that mandatory summer reading as well as work in other subjects can help reduce summer fallback, and many districts have put such programs into place.
The Amherst-Pelham Regional School District is one of three Massachusetts districts that are members of the Minority Student Achievement Network (along with Brookline and Cambridge). Interestingly, both of the other districts require high school students to complete summer reading, whereas Amherst Regional High School has no such requirement. At Brookline High School, students are required to read "Farewell, My Subaru: An Epic Adventure in Local Living." In a letter sent to all high school students, parents, and guardians, students are told, "You should be ready to discuss this unique book with your peers and teachers in English and science classes, as well as in community forums when you return in September." At Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, students are required to read at least one book in the summer, and to keep journal entries on their reading. Ninth-grade students read "The Contender," 10th-graders read "Colored People," 11th-graders read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," and 12th-graders read "The Kite Runner."
And it is not just the schools near Boston that require middle and high school students to complete summer work. In the Hadley Public Schools, rising seventh-graders are required to read and write summaries of four books, complete math worksheets and memorize all states and capitals. Rising ninth-graders read "Scorpion House," complete math worksheets, and come up with 10 ideas for science fair projects. Hadley's required summer work even extends to all elementary school grades, where students are required to complete math review packets and read grade appropriate books. The elementary school handbooks states that summer assignments are designed to lessen "the regression in student understanding of math concepts/skills and reading comprehension/vocabulary that typically occurs during the summer break." The handbook also urges parents "to continue their role as active learning partners with their children during the summer months."
The reluctance of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District to assign summer reading may come in part from a concern that some children have fewer resources at home to support this work. However, given the evidence that the absence of summer assignments disproportionately hurts precisely these children the most, current practice would appear to be at odds with our commitment to social justice. Summer assignments are an inexpensive and potentially quite effective tool in the efforts to raise achievement and reduce the achievement gap, and it strikes us that such a fiscally and morally responsible policy merits serious consideration.
Steve Rivkin and Catherine Sanderson are Amherst College professors and members of the Amherst School Committee.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.