Summer Learning Initiatives

It is no secret that our school systems face serious discrepancies in student achievement. But it is not just what goes on during the school year that contributes to this. In fact Dr. Judy Blankenship Cheatham, Vice President of Literary Services at Reading is Fundamental, reports that most of this achievement gap actually takes place in the summer months when a significant proportion of kids are “opportunity poor”. During the Summer Learning Story Ideas Webinar, Dr. Cheatham joined forces with Jessica Lahey, writer for The Atlantic and New York Times and Sarah Pitcock, CEO of National Summer Learning Association (NSLA), to explore summer learning opportunities and ways to combat what has been coined as “summer slide” for students. The webinar provided information and resources on the importance of summer learning, especially now that half of students qualify for free and reduced lunches. This level of poverty is a driving factor behind the lack of access to diverse, interesting, and informational texts during the summer months. The consequence is that students are regressing in literacy skills during the summer, losing up to three months worth of progress. According to Dr. Judy Cheatham the cumulative effect of this summer slide is that students without access to summer reading materials are on average two and a half to three years behind their peers by fifth grade, and four years behind by twelfth grade.

How do we work to address this issue at a time where many students are living in isolated, rural areas or do not have the monetary means to access resourceful books? Fortunately, according to Dr. Cheatham, it does not take extensive lessons and lecturing to overcome this problem. One of her studies found that just an hour of reading with a volunteer twice a week is enough to at least maintain literacy level, and oftentimes even progress. Sarah Pitcock also provided information on several growing summer learning programs. Specifically, school libraries and public housing authorities have recently taken initiative for summer learning, offering low-cost or free programs for kids. Public school libraries across the country are implementing volunteer based programs where, for just $7 a summer, students can access their school libraries twice a week. While public libraries are often a good resource, those in low income places are the first to close for the summer and even if they are open, can be miles away from the students who need it most. Alternatively, keeping school libraries open can help provide more options. Additionally, and even more surprising, is the summer learning initiatives taking place by public housing authorities. An excellent example of this is in Tacoma, WA where they have implemented cost-free learning programs for local students during the summer.

While the aforementioned programs mark progress, two-thirds of children in the United States still aren’t involved in any kind of summer learning. A major contributor to this, outside of cost, is the inability to get informative texts to students at their reading level that also interest them. Malbert Smith, NSLA board member and President of MetaMetrics® , explains in his paper Stop Summer Academic Loss that “The best predictor of summer reading is whether books are in the home. Unfortunately, many students go home to text-free or text-poor zones.” But it is not enough to merely provide children with books, as Dr. James Kim, Harvard University professor, found through more than a decade of research. His study shows that children’s reading abilities can actually grow over the summer when they read high-interest books in their Lexile® range. But, he remarks that we need to make sure students are “finding books at their reading level that really interest them. Young people have to want to read a book and they have to be able to read it.”

Dr. Kim’s findings inspired a tool that helps combat summer slide nationwide – The Lexile “Find a Book”. “Find a Book” actualizes Dr. Kim’s research in a fun, easy-to-use interface for educators, parents and children. With “Find a Book,” you can build targeted reading lists for students based on their Lexile measure. This enables students to find books that are at their reading level, but also lets them choose their own books based off of individual interests. Being able to choose their own books significantly increases the rate at which students finish them and can ultimately work to overcome summer academic loss.

MetaMetrics® also provides other free resources for educators, parents, and students to access year round and has their own initiative: Chief’s Summer Learning Challenge that works with state DOEs to promote reading and math over the summer.

Math = Logic?

Suppose you’re in a dungeon with two doors. One leads to escape, the other to execution. There are only two other people in the room, one of whom always tells the truth, while the other always lies. You don’t know which is which, but they know that the other always lies or tells the truth. You can ask one of them one question, but, of course, you don’t know whether you’ll be speaking to the truth-teller or the liar. So what single question can you ask one of them that will enable you to figure out which door is which and make your escape?

Stumped? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. It’s not a trick question though; in fact the answer is fairly straightforward:

You ask either of them: “If I asked the other person which door is the one to escape, which would he point to?” Then you take the other door.

According to Nicholas Kristoff, a New York Times columnist, those with mathematical training are more likely to figure out this problem. Why is that? Kristoff explains that math isn’t just math — it’s logic. The skills utilized when studying and learning math are the same logistical skills you use for everyday things like brain teasers, statistics, or economics; even if you don’t realize that’s what you’re doing.

Questions like the one mentioned above, however, are often puzzling to Americans. For example, studies show that only 37% of American kids could correctly answer the question below whereas 75% of our Singapore counterparts answered correctly.

What is the sum of the three consecutive whole numbers with 2n as the middle number? (Answer: B)

  1. 6n+3
  2. 6n
  3. 6n-1
  4. 6n-3

It is not uncommon to hear stories of America’s poor performance in reading and math on an international scale. While this is a common misconception considering our scores have actually been improving over the past years, some of our counterparts in other advanced countries are indeed progressing more quickly. This is not due to an overall higher intelligence of other countries though. If we revisit the Singapore comparison we can learn that this kind of thinking is not innate. Instead, this logic is taught. Some may be familiar with the concept of “Singapore Math”, a model constructed upon child development theory that relies on student mastery of a limited number of mathematical concepts each year. The end result is that these students have a deeper level of comprehension and are therefore more prepared for problem solving. This enables them to master more difficult topics, like fractions and ratios, at much earlier ages than American students.

So if this is true, why then are Americans “avoiding” math? I’m sure we all know someone, or have been guilty ourselves, of copping out with: “Oh, I’m just not good at math”. But why do we have these outlooks on our math abilities when they can indeed be taught?

The answer may lie in our early foundations in mathematics. Unlike Singapore’s focus on mastery of limited concepts, American mathematics often focuses on memorization and drilling of concepts, such as multiplication. This can result in a lack of understanding about the meaning and function of numerals. And since mathematics continuously builds on itself, if a student doesn’t master the basic foundational concepts they will progress slowly and often fall behind. In fact, a study by researchers at the University of Missouri found that: “Children who don’t grasp the meaning and function of numerals before they enter first grade fall behind their peers in math achievement, and most of them don’t catch up”. This contributes to the alarming 22% innumeracy rate among adults in the United States. This early exposure and mastery of basic mathematical concepts is crucial for future arithmetic abilities.

This comparison is not to dishearten educational efforts in the United States, however. In fact this should encourage the public that the solution may be more straightforward than we imagined. Tools such as The Quantile® Framework for Mathematics can aid in this transformation by providing learners with resources for their individualized mathematical levels. Tools like these can be personalized for each student and provide additional means for gaining mastery of specific concepts.

High School Graduation Continues To Climb

During May and June, high school seniors across the United States gather to don a cap and gown in a crescendo of four years of hard work. For the students it is a momentous occasion in their lives. Yet, it could also be part of a momentous trend across the United States, depending on how many students actually receive their graduation certificates. In 2013, the high school graduation rate hit 81.4%, according to the 2015 Building a Grad Nation Report put out by the organization GradNation. This is up slightly from 79% in 2011 and 80% in 2012, and is moving steadily towards a goal of 90% of high schoolers graduating in 2020. So why have graduation rates risen, and how can they continue to rise? Research has illustrated several factors that have counted to higher graduation rates. First, targeted efforts have helped retain minority students from dropping out. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, in 2000 13% of all African-American students dropped out and 27% of Latino/as. By 2012, these numbers had declined to 7.5% of African-American students and 12.7% of Latino/a students. Retention of minority students has had a substantial effect on the graduation rate.

Importantly, interventions at the district and school level have helped mold schools into places where students can thrive and graduate. Throughout the ’90s, organizations like the Center for Research on Education of Students Placed at Risk (CRESPAR), a joint venture between John Hopkins and Howard University, began to study how individual high schools could improve in instruction and administration to keep from losing minority students. This helped to target the 900 to 1,000 high schools in the U.S. where graduation was 50% at best, and the 2,000 high schools where a freshman class will shrink by 40% before senior year. Since then many states have launched sophisticated programs to target their lowest performing schools and reconstruct them into more successful institutions.

Also important to the rise of graduation is improvement in instruction much earlier than high school. In fact, one of the most important indicators of whether a student will graduate high school is how the student reads at third grade. Students living in poverty tend to enter school with a paucity of language, which can be exacerbated by the time they deal with high school courses if initiatives are not put in place by third grade. For this reason, states have made significant efforts, such as NC’s Read to Achieve, over the last decade and a half to target third grade reading. No doubt as further and further emphasis on third grade reading occurs, more and more students will continue to graduate high school almost a decade later.

Despite gains, however, there are some areas in the United States which have not seen the same growth. Often times in the United States, socioeconomic categories overlap. Areas with greater socioeconomic hardships–and minorities with a greater rate of poverty compared to the state average– tend to face difficult circumstances when helping those minority students succeed in schools. For instance, Arizona, whose overall population living in poverty is 9% White while 33% Latino/a, also has significantly lower graduation rates among Latino/a students compared to the national average. In fact, it is one of the places where high school graduation is declining in the nation. To continue to grow graduation rates will take an increased effort to help the gap close, not widen, between the privileged and less privileged members of our society.

MetaMetrics is an educational measurement organization. Our renowned psychometric team develops scientific measures of student achievement that link assessment with targeted instruction to improve learning.