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Local Column

Akst: Stopping the summer slide

Summer is not even a week old yet, but the damage has already begun.

The damage I refer to is the summer slide.

Basically, from the end of one school year to the start of the next, students lose massive amounts of learning achieved during the previous school year. The losses are so great that schools spend weeks – sometimes months – of the new year in remediation.

The slide starts innocently enough, like … uh … a slide. As the National Summer Learning Association persuasively notes, “Many Americans have a wonderful image of summer as a carefree, happy time when ‘kids can be kids.’ ”

That’s a powerful narrative. One doesn’t have to listen too closely to hear laments about kids being over-scheduled, particularly in summer when they could be relaxing. Many of us have fond memories of riding bikes and hanging out with friends.

But in citing over a century of research, the NSLA says students “typically score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer vacation than they do on the same tests at the beginning of the summer.” I would be the first to say we place way too much emphasis on standardized tests, but they are comparable data points.

Recent research (2011) published by the Rand Corp. indicates that elementary students’ performance falls by about a month during the summer, but lower-income students see even steeper declines. Worse, research suggests that summer learning loss “is cumulative and that, over time, these periods of differential learning rates between low-income and higher-income students contribute substantially to the achievement gap.”

Cognitive slumps happen to adults too, whenever we don’t practice and utilize skills and knowledge. Some years back, I was conversant in Spanish and German. Now, nicht sehr gut. Even stuff I teach every semester, like basic graphic design, takes extra time to spin up in the fall after a summer of not using Photoshop.

Alas, if it were only reading. The summer slide happens with math, too. In fact, math skills often suffer the most in summer, writes Kristen R. Stephens, Ph.D. for Duke University’s Talent Identification Program. “Math skills often slip the farthest, with students losing an average of 2.6 months of grade level equivalency,” Stephens said.

The key is to keep kids thinking but in such a way that it’s not drudgery. It has to be age- and intellectually appropriate, but libraries and Pinterest can help.

Yes, sneak in the learning or make it overtly fun. Sneaking in learning reminds me of Jessica Seinfeld’s wonderful cookbook, “Deceptively Delicious,” which is full of recipes with vegetables stealthily included. You know, for kids who won’t eat vegetables.

Our little boy (third grade this fall) is lucky to have such a great mom. Today’s math was a “treasure hunt.” The “clues” required him to solve arithmetic drills. The correct solutions revealed the locations of more clues. The treasure is a wacky sprinkler-hose-thing. Total cost: a few bucks and a few pieces of paper, but it was genius, and our son loved it.

We’re also doing family journaling. The most recent topic was what we would do with a million bucks.

I turned in a lame litany of house refurbishment, financial planning and philanthropy. Our son talked about all the Legos he would buy.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as a board member for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter @JasonAkst.

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