August 24, 2006

Summer Slide

Hardly a day goes by that I don't come across another clueless newspaper article on education.

Today's article comes courtesy of the Boston Globe. Ostensibly, it's about the so-called summer slide kids experience after school ends in the spring. The article focuses on cutesy summer enrichment programs that supposedly help kids keep their minds active during the summer which I'll gloss over. That's all well and good, but as you're about to see, the article gets the whole cause and effect thing wrong. I'll skip over the portions on the enrichment programs and get right to the meat of the problem.
Worried about the so-called "summer slide," the attrition of hard-won academic gains in the absence of daily lessons and homework, they increasingly are searching for creative ways to help children stay mentally sharp during vacations.
The "summer slide" is not the attrition of hard-won academic gains in the absence of daily lessons and homework. It is the attrition of academic skills that were never adequately learned in the first place.

Educators are supposedly the experts in learning, yet they are invariably clueless when it comes to student learning and retention of learned material. It's not due to lack of research on learning and retention; it is because they continue to ignore the research.

Whenever I run across one of these pseudo-problems in education I always turn to one of the successful instructional programs to see how they handle the "problem." Invariably, they are not only cognizant of the problem, they have successly avoided or cured it. This time I'll turn to the succesful Direct Instruction program, always a fertile source of knowledge on learning. Here's what they've said on the issue.
Teachers had been told the ASAP policy for placing students at the beginning of the school year: Go back no more than five lessons in the program sequence and bring students to a high level of mastery on the material. This firming is to take no more than five school days. After the review, students should be well prepared to pick up in the program where they had finished in the spring.

The teachers were openly skeptical about this procedure, and they ignored it. They argued that, over the summer, students forget much of what they had learned. We told them that learning didn’t work that way. We pointed out that there is a lot of literature on learning and retention that shows that even if something that had been thoroughly learned and had not been practiced for years, there would be great “savings” in the amount of time needed to reteach this material to mastery. Therefore, if appropriate placement for students in the fall (based on error performance) is 80 lessons behind where they finished in the spring, the only possible conclusion is that they had never learned the material in the spring.
To summarize: the summer slide is caused by not adequately teaching the material the first time it was taught, not by kids keeping their mind active during the summer. educators are once again the problem. End of article.

Actually, it's not the end because educators will never admit that they're the problem. So let's have some fun with their creative rationalizations and excuse making.
Concerns over youngsters losing ground while school is out have intensified amid pressure to raise standardized test scores and cover required state standards, leaving little time to review material students have forgotten.
Put another check mark in the "pro" column for NCLB. Educators are now focusing on what students are learning (or failing to learn) under NCLB. The implication being that they weren't so much concerned beforehand, which, of course, is true.

And what's up with this: "pressure to raise standardized test scores and cover required state standards." Another way of saying this is "pressure to learn what the state wants them to learn and be able to demonstrate on a standard testing instrument what they've learned." Another word for this is school.

And, needing "time to review material students have forgotten" can be more accurately expressed as needing "time to re-teach material that was not taught properly the first time around." See how easy it is to understand the solution once you've identified the problem.

In a study released in June, the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore found that students typically lose one to two months of reading and math skills during summer break, and that teachers often spend up to six weeks reviewing topics already covered.

The summer slide also is widely blamed for causing low-income and minority students to fall further behind their peers, particularly those who maintained or advanced their skills during the summer months.

The ability to maintain and advance skills depends on how well those skills where taught in the first place. Students desire to advance their skills on their own also depends on how well they learned those skills the first time around. Poor understanding coupled with lots of errors does not an enthusiastic student make.

As the study survey shows, not teaching properly typically results in the loss of about 20 to 40 days of instruction due to having to review old material not taught adequately. Even more for low-income and minority kids. Engelmann pegs the the number at 80-100 lessons (1/2 the school year):
In the first ASAP schools we worked with in Utah, teachers routinely placed continuing students at the beginning of the school year 80 to 100 lessons behind the last lesson they had completed the preceding spring.
Reteaching wastes a lot of instructional time. No surprise. Let's see what educators are doing to remedy the problem:
In response to the concerns, teachers are urging students to read more over the summer; libraries and reading-advocacy groups are creating book lists and incentive programs, like Quincy's weekly raffle for book-readers; and schools are offering more tutoring and enrichment classes.
These are all "blame the student" solutions. Even the notion of "the summer slide" pegs the problem squarely on the kids. It's their fault they are regressing.

Nonetheless, the educrat solution is still "reteaching." They're just shifting the reteaching to the summer time with tutoring and enrichment classes or having them read on their own. Can we say opportunity costs.

It gets better.
And more students are attending programs such as Camp Invention, where enrollment has nearly tripled in the past three years to nearly 100 students. The program's popularity, teachers said, is the result of striking a balance between education and good summer fun. True, the projects are aligned with national science standards, but the students don't have to know that.

"It's almost as if they don't know they're learning," said Erin Wiesehahn , director of the Duxbury Camp Invention program and a third-grade teacher.
Yeah, that's probably because if the teaching is the same as what was going on in the spring, they're probably not learning all that much now anyway.
[M]any parents are searching for ways to incorporate reading into summer vacation, and that children are looking for books that will capture their interest. A Scholastic survey has found that parents and children overwhelmingly believe that summer reading helps children perform better once school starts.
Good thing we took that survey then. Now we know what parents "believe" will help children perform better instead of following actual research that tells us what actually is effective in getting children to learn better.

Why do I think that educators also overwhelmingly said the same thing on the survey. The blind leading the deaf and blind.
"It's a major contributor to the achievement gap," he said. To Fairchild, the popular perception of summer as time off from learning needs to change, and he urges educational trips, frequent visits to the library, and daily math refreshers to keep children mentally active.
Summers now contribute to the achievement gap. Say good-bye to your summers low-income and minority kids. I hear a thousand newspapers articles being penned lamenting the loss of summer for these kids in a thinly-veiled attempt to undermine NCLB.

Notice how the article still hasn't even entertained the idea that the teaching could possibly be at fault or a major contributing factor. Of course, also left unsaid is that bad teaching disproportionately affects the most vulnerable students -- the low-income and minority ones.

Barbara Garvey , an eighth-grade English teacher in Brockton, said she can spot summer sliders right away, as soon as she reads the essays she assigns the first day back. Students who have put their brain on pause for the summer take a while to shake off the cobwebs.

"If they've been sitting by the TV all summer, it takes them a good two weeks to get back into the school scene," she said. "You can tell right away who's been reading and who hasn't. The ones who have are right on target."

There's one more persons whose brain is also on pause.

If you look at who was reading over the summer and who wasn't, you're not going to see that the students who were reading well in the spring are the ones doing the most reading and the ones doing the worst, doing the least reading.

We're surprised that kids who didn't learn to read well in the spring aren't enthused about reading during the summer? Let's put this preposterous theory to the test. Give all the students an advanced calculus textbook (or anything well over the reading ability of all the students) to read over the summer and see how much any kid reads and how enthused they are doing so.

Summer slide or not, students at the Duxbury camp were a bit hesitant to sacrifice their precious summer hours to attend school. Noah Schulman , a Plymouth first-grader busy creating a golf-like carnival game, said he was having fun, although a swimming break might be nice. He didn't think his brain had turned to mush over the summer, exactly, but acknowledged that it had lost its sharpness.

The old journalistic standby when it comes to reporting education issues. Ask a few kids what they think. Why not ask a real expert on learning and retention, someone who has developed a program where kids actually did learn and retain material over the summer. Here's a nice research-based factoid they might have gotten from Engelmann had they done so:
For several years, the teachers resisted following the fall-placement rules and continued to use their traditional practices. To correct this situation, we documented the mastery of all students several weeks before the end of the school year. We staged “show off ” lessons that were observed. The observations confirmed what students did know, and in some cases, identified some things they had not adequately mastered. Before the end of the school year, students were placed according to the rules about first-time-correct percentages so they were firm in everything that had been presented in the program sequence.

At the beginning of the next school year, we controlled the placement of students to make sure that teachers were placing students no more than 5 lessons behind where they had left off in the spring. Students performed as predicted. After possibly one or two lessons, they clearly performed as well as they had in the spring.

The response of the teachers was overwhelmingly one of disbelief and revelation. Most of them said something like, "I'm amazed. They actually retained what they had learned."

The magnitude of their surprise suggests how strong the belief was that students could not possibly retain the information over the summer. This strong belief had been supported by what they had observed in the past, which was based on spring placements that were far beyond what students had actually mastered.
The take away: teach properly and you only have to reteach for a week. Teach poorly and you could waste a few months reteaching. And, ruin a few summers in the process.

Summer isn't the problem, bad teaching is.

1 comment:

SteveH said...

"Summer isn't the problem, bad teaching is."

And bad journalism.