Summertime and the learning is easy?

I added some clarifications to yesterday's post since I don't think I quite captured Gladwell's point about extreme IQ and achievement.  And I'll take the discussion about why the upper class kids showed more learning gains in the summer over here.

Let's start with the data first.  The data cited is from a study by Karl Alexander, who looked at the reading scores of a cohort of 650 first graders from the Baltimore public school system.  He took advantage of the fact that Baltimore administered the California Achievement Test to the same kids both in June, at the end of the school year, and in September, at the start of the next year.  This let them see what happened over the course of the school year, and what happened in the summer.  Here's a nice summary of the research, from the National Center for Summer Learning.

So, what's going on?  First, as Alexander notes in the summary, we're talking about Baltimore City Public Schools.  So the "upper class" kids are only relatively advantaged — they tended to have college graduate parents, but to be basically middle class. 

Second, even given that, there's a real difference in what the kids did over the summer.  As Alexander writes:

"I don’t want to break it down into a checklist, but some differences seemed relevant. For example, better-off children were more likely to go to the library over the summertime and take books home. They were more likely to engage in a variety of enrichment experiences such as attending museums, concerts, and field trips. They were more likely to take out-of-town vacations, be involved in organized sports activities, or take lessons, such as swimming or gymnastics lessons. Overall, they had a more expansive realm of experiences."

But there's still the question of why the upper class kids would learn MORE (per month) over the summer than during the school year.  My guess is that they're reading more over the summer when they get to pick what they read than they do during the school year when it's assigned.

Updated:  Sorry, I'm clearly not providing enough detail.  The years when there was the disproportionate amount of learning over the summer were after 3rd and fourth grade:

Learning gains for upper class students in Baltimore







Increase during school year






Increase during summer following












10 Responses to “Summertime and the learning is easy?”

  1. Jennifer Says:

    Where I live, first grade is when a kid learns to read. (They do some memorizing of simple words in k-garten, but first grade is when it really kicks in.) So I would guess — and of course this is a guess — that kids who don’t read much over the summer backslide severely that year, whereas kids who do read get exponentially better at it.

  2. Susanne Says:

    As to your question about why the more advantaged group would learn more over the summer, the current body of research offers some ideas as to why:
    -This group of kids has much greater access to reading material.
    -Their parents guide their reading and understanding of the material with open ended questioning that develops critical thinking.
    -They still have access to resources that support learning like safe environments, healthy meals, and caring adults, which may not be available to disadvantaged youth.
    -Overall, they have much greater access to fun and engaging opportunities over the summer, whether that’s a specialty camp, a sleep away camp, or a family vacation.
    Regardless of the fact the Alexander conducted his research in Baltimore, the difference between the groups of kids is significant. In another community, the groups would be at different income points.

  3. Madeleine Says:

    The reasons mentioned for difference between groups of students all make sense.
    On the question of why the more privileged students seem to learn more per month over the summer than during school, I wonder if there is an “integration time” effect. Sometimes there is a lag between being taught something and really integrating it into your knowledge. So testing on the same skills/knowledge a few months later might pick up those fully integrated skills that were taught in the spring and only partially demonstrated on the spring test.

  4. jen Says:

    I’ve heard some parents claim that their kids go thru growth spurts in the summer, and they wonder if it’s because they’re finally sleeping enough. My kids sleep tons more in the summer. Their bedtime trends later because of more sun, but they get up quite a bit later. And my kids at least seem to sleep better, because they’re getting so much more exercise.
    While the sleep theory doesn’t explain deltas between two groups of kids — shouldn’t they both be experiencing the benefits of more sleep? — it may partially explain how the same kid can absorb more during the summer than during the year.

  5. Jody Says:

    I think jen is onto something with the sleep/exercise issue, and Madeleine probably has a point with the knowledge integration. Also, after three years of school, I’m struck by the way that the first 6-9 weeks of a traditional school year are spent in preliminary assessments and review of the previous year, and the last 6-9 weeks are spent reviewing and solidifying the knowledge acquired in the year that is now concluding. This is particularly pronounced when it comes to reading. So it makes sense to me that, when it comes to early reading acquisition (which is what a test of 650 first-graders would pick up), summer learning might be greater than school-year learning.
    I would particularly want to see a similar study of 650 fourth graders, whose basic reading skills are not in such flux. We definitely saw “reading growth spurts” among our children and their friends between the beginning of first grade and the middle of second grade, and those spurts are already starting to even out. Who’s to say that the rapid learning in the summer after first grade wasn’t just a product of those kids having the “reading moment”?
    That would explain both the discrepancy between school-year and summer-time learning and the gap between middle-class and lower-class summer learning acquisition. It’s hard to “leap forward” in the absence of a framework of support.

  6. bj Says:

    I get the difference between summer learning for different income groups, but was perplexed by the difference between in school v summer reading for the upper income group.
    I think I like Jody’s explanation the best — especially for the developmentally labile time we’re talking about here (the 1st-2nd grade transition). It seems a reasonable hypothesis that after the school year, the higher income students were more likely to be distributed across the “reading growth spurt” than after the summer. After the summer, they’d all hit “reading puberty”, while in the 1st grade, only some of them had. There’s also non-linearity with respect to ages in school, which might make the spurt more likely to occur over the summer than during the school year (though it could also just be a accumulation effect).
    I’m inclined to this explanation ’cause I just got to compare the physical appearance of the 6th & 8th grade classes at my daughter’s school. The 6th graders span the puberty divide, and so vary in physical development and height. Some of them look like children, and others like men and women. The eight graders had mostly transitioned.
    To test the hypothesis, the investigator should examine the same time course for other less developmentally labile stages (though I’m not sure what these might be — kids are changing all the time, and so fast).

  7. urbanartiste Says:

    What factors are in effect that would have kids learn more in the summer than actually in school? Could it be they are receiving more individual instruction or learning is play/hands on rather than rote classroom methods? I think the nature of learning needs to be examined rather than the issue of parental education/guidance or access. It is clear that economically advantaged children will have more access to cultural and educational things, but children can also be self-learners.

  8. bj Says:

    We’ve got to read the study, no, before we start developing elaborate theories? :-).

  9. amy Says:

    I’d also consider that there’s a good chance the UC parents are better-educated than the teachers are; they expect more of the kids than the teachers do, and pay closer attention to what their children are doing. If the kids are in camp all day, the UC parents will have sent their kids to camp with other UC kids, and the expectations, vocabulary, and general push-towards-professional-life that exist in those homes will get reinforced among all the kids. (Happily, you can’t forcibly integrate those camps; the UC parents just move their kids.)
    I don’t think this is any great revelation, btw.

  10. amy Says:

    Incidentally, Elizabeth, I’m a big fan of civil disobedience when it comes to reading in school. If the lesson is boring and you already know the stuff, quietly pull out a book and read. Whatever you want. If they take it away, bring another. Let them try punishing you for reading. My experience is that if that’s the biggest problem they have with you, they’ll let it go. Vroom vroom.

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