Is 'Summer Setback' the smoking gun
in the 'reading gap' between rich and poor?

by Jim Trelease © 2005, 2006, 2007

teen readingFor decades, districts have been addressing the pronounced gap in reading scores between rich and poor students, all to little avail. As much as the disadvantaged students are remediated, there remained a persistent setback when students returned from summer vacation. In the September 2003 issue of Phi Delta Kappan, researchers Richard Allington and Anne McGill-Franzen point to this as the possible smoking gun in their article "The Impact of Summer Setback on the Reading Achievement Gap." (8 pages) Appearing in the same month's issue of The Reading Teacher, Wisconsin educators Denise Malach and Robert Rutter took some of the same research and decided to do something to alleviate the "setback" at one elementary school in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

The Kappan authors review the substantial body of research that districts are ignoring at their own risk: "Available research indicates that the reading achievement of poor children, as a group, typically declines during the summer vacation period, while the reading achievement of children from more economically advantaged families holds steady or increases modestly."

An analysis of the research of Donald Hayes and Judith Grether with high- and low-poverty students in 600 New York City schools showed that rich and poor students had seven-month difference in scores at the beginning of second grade but this widened to a difference of two years and seven months by the end of grade six. What made this particularly striking was the research showing little or no difference in these students' achievement when school was in session: They learned at the same pace. As Hayes and Grether noted:

"The differential progress made during the four summers between 2nd and 6th grade accounts for upwards of 80 percent of the achievement difference between economically advantaged ... and ... ghetto schools."

The Wisconsin authors noted that a Green Bay (WI) elementary school's second-grade teachers found enormous discrepancies between student evaluations by first-grade teachers at the end of first grade and where many of those students were when they started second grade. Much of it pointed to the "summer setback."

After debate and consultation, the staff came up with a program called Continued Connections in which three teachers manned a converted recreational vehicle and visited five central locations in the school's service area, once a week. Targeted incoming second-graders could visit the brightly decorated vehicle as often as they wished and were given instruction, encouragement, and books to read. In addition, their parents often attended and could observe the lessons. Nontarget children also could visit the RV and borrow books for SSR.

The students served by the program were 84 percent free-lunch qualified children who came from a largely minority population, including Hispanic and Hmong. Seventy-nine different students visited the RV class (40 from the target population) a total of 576 times.The 48 days of instruction lowered the normal summer setback from 12 weeks to two weeks. Target children received 317 individualized lessons, and 563 books were circulated (311 by target students). Seventy-six percent of the target children improved or maintained their end-of-year scores, as opposed to 59 percent of target students who didn't participate in the program.

The lesson here is an obvious one: If we wish to close the gap between rich and poor in this nation and we know where the gap grows and widens, then it is criminal to ignore it and not do what Green Bay did. It is a program that is easily replicable. The only drawback is that test-makers and textbook publishers won't be making much money off it.

— summarized from: "For nine months kids go to school, but in summer this school goes to the kids," by Denise A. Malach and Robert A. Rutter. The Reading Teacher, September, 2003, pp. 50-54.


More "summer setback" research

Reading Books Is Found
To Ward Off ‘Summer Slump’

By Debra Viadero
From Education Week, May 5, 2004

Having elementary school pupils read four or five books during the summer can prevent the reading-achievement losses that normally occur over those months, a study suggests. Published last month in the Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, the findings are based on surveys and test data on 1,600 students in 18 elementary schools in an unnamed suburban district in the Middle Atlantic region.

Reading Research   Regardless of race, socioeconomic level, or previous achievement, researcher Jimmy S. Kim found, children who read more books fared better on reading-comprehension tests in the fall than their peers who had read one or no books over the summer.

   Though the differences between the heaviest readers—those who had read at least four or five books—and those who had barely read at all were small, he said, they were about the same size as the average summer reading loss documented in other studies on the "summer slump."

   "From a policy perspective, this study shows that maybe we need to spend more money to get books into kids’ hands," said Mr. Kim, who was a research associate for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in Cambridge, Mass., when he undertook the study. He is now a K-12 research associate for the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

   "From a school perspective," he added, "maybe we need to think about having all kids read and do a simple writing activity based on their books over the summer."

Encouraging Reading

   Studies since the 1970s have pointed to reading as one way to stem summer learning losses and bridge the achievement gaps that widen over that time between many poor and minority students and their better-off, white, and Asian-American counterparts.

   Less research exists on how best to encourage students to read over the summer. Some districts have started incentive programs. Others publish required reading lists, and some educators even mail packets of books to students.

   The district Mr. Kim studied required rising 6th graders to read at least one book over the summer and write a story or report about it. Several schools within the district asked parents to verify that their children had read a book.

   Mr. Kim found both strategies increased the likelihood that students would read more. Only about half the children in every racial and ethnic group, however, said they had met those requirements.

   Any strategy to promote summer reading is unlikely to close achievement gaps by itself, said Barbara Heyns, a New York University sociologist who has studied the summer slump. "If you have a diverse group of kids, and only the middle-class kids read, then it’s going to help the middle-class kids even more," she said.

   Both she and Mr. Kim cautioned that the new findings showed only that reading was associated with better achievement, not that it caused the differences in reading scores.

Original Research Source:

"Summer Reading & the Ethnic Achievement Gap"
by Jimmy Kim, The Center for Evaluation, American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR)
April 2004, Vol. 9, No. 2, Pages 169-188

On the subject of summer school, when The New York Times ran an article on New York City's summer school struggles ("Good and Bad News Cited in Summer School Turnout," July 23, 2004) it elicited this Letter to the Editor:

July 27, 2004

When a Child Is Struggling in Pre-K

To the Editor:
   As it now stands in many New York City school districts, a child in pre-kindergarten cannot under any circumstances repeat the year, even if parents, teachers and supervisors agree that the child would benefit from another year of pre-K and it might prevent him or her from failing later. Yet in third grade, children are forced to repeat the year if they do not pass the tests.
    Even though it could prevent four years of struggling or failure, the city will not allow the preventive measure of an extra year of pre-K. Children can get help only after they fail, which, by then, may be too late.
   Doesn't it seem backward not to allow children a better start but only later require remediation? Doesn't it seem financially foolish to save money early when it will cost more later?
   Can't we allow teachers and parents, who know children best, to make this judgment call and help more children succeed?

— Carol M. Gross
New York, July 23, 2004
(The writer is a staff developer,
Center for Universal Pre-K,
Bank Street College)


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