Who Is Really Responsible For The Summer Slide?

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground guest blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

School let out in the Chicago suburbs just over a week ago. While I have never been a proponent of the “last days of school countdown” and much prefer Twitter movements like #lastbell, I must admit, I like the time off. I appreciate waking up in the morning without an alarm and drinking coffee from a real mug.

Similarly, my children (ages 11 and 8) have enjoyed sleeping in and playing outside. It wasn’t until day 6 of our time-off together that we did something “educational.” We visited the library where we greeted by a large poster reminding us to read and avoid the dreaded “summer slide.”

What is the summer slide?
The summer slide refers to the phenomena of lost academic growth by students over the summer months when they are not actively engaged at school. On average, students lose one to three months of learning during the summer, with students from low-income homes being disproportionately affected (ASCD).

There are a plethora of recommendations for minimizing the impact of the summer slide. Most suggestions, including those listed in a recent article in Forbes Magazine, focus on two aspects of the slide, one preventative and one reactionary:

  1. what parents/guardians can do to avoid the summer slide

  2. what educators can/need to do to fix the damage done over the summer when school resumes in the fall

Why are we placing the burden of preventing the summer slide on parents?
As an educator, I have insight into what my children should be doing over the summer and I have the luxury of time-off to do things like read with them. Yet, to be honest, I don’t assess whether or not our activities help their retention nor do I want to do so. This leads me to wonder about the majority of parents who aren’t trained educators or who don’t have time-off from work. Are they really the right party to rely on to prevent the summer slide?

There are people, like Geoffrey Canada, who say the idea of no school in the summer is asinine altogether:

“every 10 years they reproduce the same study. It says exactly the same thing: Poor kids lose ground in the summertime. The system decides you can’t run schools in the summer…who makes up those rules? — I went the Harvard Ed School. I thought I knew something. They said it was the agrarian calendar, — but let me tell you why that doesn’t make sense….anyone knows if you farm, you don’t plant crops in July and August. You plant them in the spring” (Ted Talk, Our Failing Schools. Enough is Enough, 2013).

However, considering that a systemic change (like mandated year-round school) could take years to legislate, we ought to focus less on what parents and students should do to prevent the summer slide and focus more on what we (educators) can control.  The questions we should be asking ourselves are:

  1. What are we doing during the school year to ensure that the growth our students make is permanent?

  2. What are we (inadvertently) doing to make students resistant to learning in the summer?

And, I propose that the following practices (or lack thereof) are unwittingly contributing to our students’ summer slide:

Reliance on Bells and Schedules
During the nine months we have students in our classrooms we consistently send them subliminal messages that learning is fixed and structured, rather than fluid and ubiquitous. This is not malicious, but true nonetheless.

We offer our students instruction in the form of “periods” or “blocks” which typically rely on bells to indicate when learning starts and stops. Students learn reading from 8-9, and then they learn science from 9-10. And, while many schools claim to teach literacy in all classes, or engage in interdisciplinary learning, on the whole, these connections are not clear to students. Students struggle to transfer information learned in one class to another class, let alone from one year to another.

What we need to do is recognize, vocalize, and celebrate the fact that the content, skills, and concepts we cover in our classrooms just scratch the surface of what there is to be learned. We need to focus on building students’ metacognitive awareness so they recognize when and where they are learning, so they can self-identify what strategies to use to best understand the new information to which they are constantly exposed. By doing so, even when students are at home “playing video games” all summer, we give them the greatest opportunity to learn something from playing these games (plotline of a story, digital imagery, strategizing) and make connections.

Incorrectly “using” formative assessment
In Formative Assessment 2.0, Larry Ainsworth offers Stiggins’ explanation of formative assessment as something that, “happens while learning is still underway. These are the assessments that we conduct throughout teaching and learning to diagnose student needs, plan for next steps in instruction, provide students with feedback they can use…”

When done correctly, formative assessment (sometimes referred to as assessment for learning) informs both the teacher and the student of whether or not concepts/skills have been consistently mastered. The consistent “loss” of skills or knowledge over the summer months is indicative of improperly assessing students’ progress/mastery throughout the year. Furthermore, this loss suggests the focus is on moving students as a whole, rather than focusing on individual student growth which would require the use of formative assessment evidence to differentiate for their needs.

Perhaps, if we truly shift our focus to assessment for learning rather than assessment of learning, and resume teaching our students where they actually left-off the year before, the gaps will not be as cavernous.

Making reading a punishment
If (as advertised) reading is the key to preventing the summer slide; the one thing all educators must do is curate a love of reading.

Unfortunately, however, we tend to do just the opposite and systemize reading. For many students, reading is seen as a chore, a measure of compliance, or worse, something it is ok to “lie” about (read more about this here or here).

With this in mind, it is no wonder that students choose to not read in the summer. They need a break because reading feels strenuous and stressful.

Rather than assign reading in it of itself, we need to pose relevant and provocative questions which will naturally compel students to read. Instead of assigning 20 minutes of reading a night, we can ask students questions about what they read outside of class (online, in books, in magazines, even subtitles) and accept that reading takes on many forms.

When we expose students to reading in a variety of forms and recognize learning from reading of any source (wow, that’s pretty cool. where did you learn/read about that, I’ve never heard that before? Can you show me that?) it’s pretty incredible how much more students are willing to read.

In The End
Until school runs year-round we may never fully eradicate the summer slide. But, we can certainly do our best to ensure that what our students learn is permanent and not fleeting. What are your thoughts on the summer slide?

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

6 thoughts on “Who Is Really Responsible For The Summer Slide?

  1. Joshua Raymond says:


    I recognize that the Summer Slide is a real problem for many. Getting rid of the summer break would benefit quite a few students. There are some that it would harm though.

    Our kids have the Summer Bump or what this blogger terms the Summer Soar – http://hormonecoloreddays.blogspot.com/2009/08/gifted-children-summer-slide-and-back.html

    Our summers are filled with learning. Why? Because our kids love it! They have their noses buried so deep in books, conversation can be difficult. We also take learning seriously. Sometimes we have chosen learning for them, such as skipping a grade in math through summer studying. Other times we tell them that they get to choose what to learn, but they are expected to spend some time each day learning. Biographies, high school chemistry, and German are their choices this summer.

    Removing summer break means removing a great learning period for kids like these. Two to three week breaks throughout the year do not provide the same block for learning. What is great for some kids is not for others, another reason why options should be the forefront of educational reform.

    Already my school district has done away with great opportunities for learning and acceleration. Exams for credit or skipping a level must be done a in May, so that scheduling for the fall can be easier. Learning over the summer will not be tested. Schools should not exist for the convenience of employees, but the good of the students, whether is is negating a summer slide or assisting a summer soar.

    • Lisa Westman says:

      Hi, Joshua! Thank you for taking the time to read my post and for your thoughtful comments. You are a man after my own heart, I agree with you! The one-size fits all approach to education does not work in any capacity- year-round school included.

      I was not suggesting that we encourage year-round schooling, I offered the voice of one expert who suggests that for certain students. I was saying, as you noted that schools should not exist for the convenience of employees.

      As Henry Ford said, “if I had asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses.” The same goes with school/education, we are trying to make horses faster instead of inventing the car.

      It is my hope that people like us, who are passionate about education, will come together and figure out what comes next.

  2. Genius Plaza says:

    Hi Lisa,

    We really love the attention that you bring to summer slide and how it has a heavy impact on lower income students. We believe that education should be accessible to kids in every zip code as well. We also agree that parents may not be aware of summer slide or how to change it, especially in these lower income families. Therefore we think that a free online platform that is engaging and fun for kids is the best approach to solve this problem. Online games keep the kids interested, and they do not even realize that they are doing school work. Also, the option of co-creation keeps kids involved. For example, kids can build their own eBook on any topic that they want which keeps them much more attentive than standard homework assignments.
    What do you think about using online games and co-creation as tools to prevent summer learning loss?

    • Lisa Westman says:

      Hi, there! Thank you for reading my post, giving me some feedback, and sharing information about Genius Plaza. In general, if used appropriately with clear learning outcomes, I think online games/edtech products for school use, (as with most instructional or non-instructional tools) can be beneficial for students. That being said, it sounds like your hope (in part) is for students to use these intrinsically.

      Either way, I just checked out your site and I think you are on to something fantastic! I like the video clips you have of people in STEM careers and the opportunities your product gives students to create, collaborate, and do so at the level and pace that works for them. My only question would be access for students from lower socioeconomic households during non-school hours. Have you found most students have access to a device and know about your product? I’m glad you reached out to me and I will definitely look around more on your site.

  3. Michelle Discenza says:

    Thank you for sharing your blog post. My own two children, both in high school, continue to receive a summer reading assignment. While they are both strong readers, they find the summer assignment tiresome.

    I am the principal of a small elementary school in upstate NY. This year, we sent every student home with a pile of 6 brand new books (self selected) for summer reading. This generated a great deal of enthusiasm on the part of parents and students! No stickers, no trinkets, no book reports!

    • Lisa Westman says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Michelle! I LOVE this idea! Nothing like receiving brand new books especially when you select them. Definitely a gift that keeps on giving. Thank you so much for sharing!

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