Keeping Kids Intellectually Engaged In The Summer

Guests

Ron Fairchild, founder, Smarter Learning Group
Jessica Cunningham
, chief academic officer, KIPP DC

Studies show that students lose months of reading and math skills over summer vacation. That knowledge loss adds up — especially for children of low-income families — but it can be mitigated by keeping students engaged all year long.

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. School's out, and many children have traded schoolbooks for swimsuits. When these students return to school come the fall, many will have lost some of their reading and math skills.

Some argue that's no big deal. Kids need time to recharge and just be kids. Still, studies show that those losses can add up and have lasting effects, especially for students in low-income families, who may not have access to libraries, museums or Internet over the summer vacation.

We want to hear from teachers today. If you have a traditional school year, how bad is it when kids come back in the fall? And parents, what do you do to keep minds engaged over the summer? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, as the drawdown begins, did we make a difference in Afghanistan? NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us. But first, the summer slide. We begin with Ron Fairchild, a founder of the Smarter Learning Group and former CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. He's with us today from member station WKNO in Memphis. Nice to have you with us today.

RON FAIRCHILD: Thank you, it's great to be here.

CONAN: And how bad is it? How much do kids lose on average?

FAIRCHILD: Well, research really provides the footnotes for our common sense in this case, Neal. Basically everyone would expect performance to suffer without regular practice, and what research shows is that all kids, regardless of their income level of their family, experience over two months of setback in math computation skills during the elementary school grades, and low-income kids lose over two months of reading performance each and every summer of their elementary school years, while middle-income kids typically stagnate or experience a slight gain in reading performance.

So what the impact of that is, significant growth in the achievement gap in reading for kids based on income, so that by the time they reach fifth grade, the summer losses accumulate to a point where kids are close to two years behind in reading performance based on the impact of summer.

CONAN: Just based on the impact of summer. And arguments that kids need time to recharge and, you know, be kids over the summer, that seems insignificant, given that.

FAIRCHILD: Well, we like to draw - start dichotomies and pit learning against fun, and you know, even in the introduction, you know, you mentioned that we would sort of contrast popsicles and baseball versus diagramming sentences and more serious academic work.

And I think it's possible with creativity to really ensure that kids have a break from the typical routine but also experience quality learning opportunities that really can change, fundamentally change, their long-term success and trajectory in school.

But more importantly than that, in life in general, we know that quality programs can make a difference for kids, and there are also things that parents can really do to make sure that kids have a memorable, enriching summer, but also get the skills and an opportunity to catch up, keep up and work ahead that many kids frankly deserve but don't have the opportunity to experience.

CONAN: And given the budgets at many school programs across the country, summer school and summer sessions, those are things that seem to be going by the board. So it's going to be more and more up to parents, don't you think?

FAIRCHILD: They are. School systems across the country are cutting back on summer school. There are many school systems even that have been forced to cut time out of the regular school year, cut back on the number of days or number of hours. But what we're also seeing is districts that are increasingly being much more creative.

So I'm actually in Memphis, Tennessee today and heading down to Holly Springs, Mississippi tomorrow to hear about an innovative partnership between a local Head Start center and Russ College University that are involving a RIF program, Reading is Fundamental, that distributes books to kids during the summer, a very low-cost strategy to make sure that low-income preschool kids are reading all summer.

And actually, Senator Wicker is joining us from Washington, D.C., because he's such a supporter of programs like this that are low-cost solutions to helping prevent summer learning loss.

CONAN: When you talk about summer learning loss, there is also - all right, I did make fun and contrast summer learning with, you know, popsicles and running through sprinklers and that sort of thing, but there's also what some people say is academic burnout, that kids if they're not given a break can also suffer academically.

FAIRCHILD: Sure, but I think in general the hype about academic burnout and over-programming is a myth for millions of children in this country and especially in places like Holly Springs, Mississippi and other places that really suffer from a dearth in quality opportunities and programs.

And there are too few parents that have choices about what their kids can do during the summer. So I'd almost rather err on the side of extending opportunities, extending choices. I mean, nobody's forcing kids into programs against their will, necessarily. It's giving families...

CONAN: Sometimes their parents do, but yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FAIRCHILD: But you know, in some cases, you know, there are things that kids really do need extra help and support on during the summer. And I would just encourage parents to think about, you know, as they're preparing kids for college that summers can really be a game-changer.

I talk to so many adults who are successful in life and who managed to have great summers as kids but also got exposure to a skill, a talent, a hobby, a job experience, an internship that was transformative. I mean, there are scientists and engineers who got a chance to do a one-week electricity camp at their local science center, and that's what turned them on to science.

So I think we just need to think very expansively about the way we expose kids to learning experiences during the summer, take advantage of the fact that summers are, generally speaking, a pretty nice time of year from a weather standpoint. You can get outside. You can engage in service activities. You can take free educational trips.

I think what our job is as a parent of two boys myself is you try to expose kids to things that might interest them, that might excite them, that might motivate them so that they see the larger meaning and purpose for why they're in school to begin with and why they need to learn to diagram sentences and do math activities, that these kinds of things are very important for - ultimately for what they're going to do in life.

CONAN: We're talking with Ron Fairchild, director, founder of the Smarter Learning Group, and we want to hear from teachers. How bad is it when kids come back to school in the fall? We want to hear from parents. What do you do to keep your kid's mind engaged over the long summer months so that maybe they don't suffer so much of the summer slide syndrome? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And Chance(ph) is on the line with us, calling from Tulsa.

CHANCE: Hi, this is Chance.

CONAN: Go ahead, you're on the air.

CHANCE: Oh, hey. I was just calling to say that one of the things that I do for my son to keep him sharp during the summertime is I found a Head Start, or a Jump Start, computer program that they have one for each grade, and it's something - it's like a computer game that they can use to get ahead for the next year, but it's also fun and entertaining for the children.

CONAN: And something they're accustomed to doing is, well, working on the computer.

CHANCE: Yes, you know, I mean they like to play games on the Internet, and so it's a software game that they can play, and it helps prepare them with skills that they're going to need for the next school year. So instead of just recovering what they had already learned, they are also gaining new skills.

CONAN: And are you monitoring to make sure that they're playing that particular game and not playing another game on the Internet?

CHANCE: Yes, they play the computer that is my bedroom, so...

CONAN: I see.

CHANCE: I actually enjoy watching it also. It's really fun to see them learn, and they actually enjoy doing it.

CONAN: All right. Well, thanks, Chance, very much. And I guess, Ron Fairchild, that's one thing that parents can do.

FAIRCHILD: They absolutely can, and, you know, make this personal. Our two boys, who are 10 and 11, are doing a program that's similar to what the caller just described, that's computer-based. It's called Ten Marks(ph), and it's basically an opportunity for them to practice math skills that are assessed right at their level so that there are sort of problem sets that are just right, and they're fun, and they're challenging.

And then there are other sites that offer material on reading, and since, you know, we're on public radio, I thought, you know, keep it in the family. The PBS Kids has a wonderful new partnership with JetBlue Airlines, and they're doing this big Soar with Reading campaign over the course of the summer. And their website is full of activities that connect to - in particular to television programs on public television that are popular with the preschool audience to get kids - and there's activities and get them reading and excited about reading in connection with some of their favorite TV shows.

So those things strike me as very sensible and reasonable things for parents to do, to make sure that their kids are doing something that's productive and that involves learning over the summer.

CONAN: Let's go next to Zach(ph), and Zach's with us from Denver.

ZACH: Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, you're on the air.

ZACH: Thank you. Three quick things. I'm a teacher in Colorado. My first is that I applaud that previous caller's help with his kids over the summer, but I'm - I teach at a Title I school, which means that most of our parents are on (unintelligible) of some kind.

And realistically, that's just not an options for parents who work two, three jobs sometimes. But I love the idea of taking your kids to a museum over the summer, but realistically, for a lot of these kids, that just doesn't happen. They go home, they take care of their little brother and sister, and that's their summer.

And so for me, I see huge drops every year, and we spend so much time doing remedial education, which is my second point. I spend half my year doing remedial education just to get them back to or slightly above where they were when they left at the end of the year.

CONAN: So do you sometimes feel as if you're spinning your wheels, just teaching the same thing over and over again?

ZACH: Oh my God, incredibly so. I mean, it's - and granted, we try to make it as specific a learning environment as possible, but realistically, when I have to put a bunch - spend an entire class period every day with the kids who knew this stuff last year, they could do it on the test last year, but when they come to me in August, they can't do it anymore, and they've lost all motivation because they've spent three months doing nothing stimulating, it's really frustrating.

I even had my kids today, I'm teaching summer school, writing an essay on, you know, a long summer break versus short breaks, and a lot of them instantly said oh long summer breaks, best thing ever. Except they couldn't come up with any reason why it was really better than taking like year-round school sort of style solutions and doing short breaks. So that would be my last point, is advocating for something like that.

CONAN: Zach, thanks very much for the call, and we're going to be talking about that when we get back from a short break. We'll be talking with the founder of the KIPP DC WILL Academy, a charter middle school that has, well, just about year-round classes. So stay with us for a talk about that approach.

Parents, how do you keep your kids' minds engaged over the summer? Teachers, if you teach a traditional school-year system, how bad is it when kids come back in the fall? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. One proposed antidote to summer learning loss is an extended school year. KIPP is a national network of college preparatory charter schools in 20 states across the country. The schools have an extended school day.

Students attend classes from 7:30 to 5:00 and have a mandatory summer school, not a punishment program, a program that strives to turn learning loss into learning gain.

We want to hear from teachers today. If you have a traditional school year, how bad is it when kids come back in the fall? Parents, what do you do to keep minds engaged during the summer? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Send us an email, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Ron Fairchild, founder of the Smarter Learning Group. Also with us here in Studio 3A is Jessica Cunningham, chief academic officer for KIPP DC Schools and founder of the KIPP DC WILL Academy, a charter middle school here in Washington. Nice to have you with us on the program today.

JESSICA CUNNINGHAM: So happy to be here, thank you.

CONAN: So teachers lose their coveted summer break. Does it pay off?

CUNNINGHAM: It absolutely pays off. I mean, I'm a former public school teacher myself, and so I can definitely relate to what I think Chance was talking about in terms of having to spend a lot of time just helping kids recover those old skills.

And so it really gives teachers an opportunity to get a head start on the school year and make sure that the kids really master the skills that they should have learned the previous school year. And so it's really more of an opportunity than anything.

CONAN: And describe the school year for us. What do you do over the summer?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, at KIPP, our school year really starts in the summer. So we do a three-week summer school in July. It's a shorter day because we actually understand that they need more time with their families, more time to eat those popsicles and jump into those swimsuits you mentioned.

But we also want to make sure that they're getting a head start on that upcoming thick curriculum for us, for fifth graders, for middle school. And so it's kind of a nice balance of the rigorous academics and the fun stuff, the playing on the monkey bars at recess and all that. That's still there.

CONAN: It's still there because obviously physical education and arts, all that's very important too.

CUNNINGHAM: Right, which is why they don't just start our year at KIPP with reading and math classes, but they also get to meet that new music teacher and get started playing that violin or get started in PE and figuring out, oh, I think I want to try out for the soccer team this year, or oh, you know, I think I'm actually more interested in lacrosse.

CONAN: And I wonder, kids, I'm sure the first minute they see that schedule will go, ohhh...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CUNNINGHAM: Well, you're taking me back to our first year, where yes, I definitely remember seeing some faces that were a little less than happy that morning. But I'll tell you, you know, within 30 minutes of that first morning meeting with the principal and their teachers, they're really excited because they get there and they realize: Oh, so I'm going to learn my times tables, but I'm going to learn them in a fun way, in a way that allows me to really feel successful and confident but also allows me to laugh and wiggle with my peers.

CONAN: And do you do tests to find out how much kids lose over the summer or gain?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, we can definitely - we definitely can say that they gain. You know, I mean, in D.C., at KIPP DC Schools, our kids perform with - just right along with the top kids in the city, many of them are also coming from some of the more affluent households.

So we know it works. We also know it works just from the feedback that we get from parents, who are just ecstatic about being able to A) send their kids to a really safe place but a safe place where their kids are having fun and learning at the same time.

CONAN: Ron Fairchild, I wanted to bring you back in. I read a piece that you wrote, which corrected my fallacious assumption that the September-through-beginning-of-June school year was the product of our old agrarian economy.

FAIRCHILD: Well, most people think that it's strictly a function of the fact that kids needed to be off all summer for agricultural work. What's interesting is if you look back at the history of this, big cities had as much to do with our current calendar as rural communities, and in fact many rural communities typically had breaks in the spring and fall for planting and harvesting, but actually there's a rich tradition of a summer term in rural communities, where kids actually came back for a short period of time during the summer.

Many of the early drivers for the current calendar in urban communities are really the relatively wealthy or affluent who wanted to flee the cities. And you think about the turn of the last century, what was going on in our large urban communities, many people wanted to leave the city for the summer, and hence the grand compromise and how we settled on the current 180-day calendar is really a political compromise as much as anything else between our rural and our urban communities.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Allen(ph) in Victor, Idaho: I grew up when everybody went to school from September through May, before there were any alternative school schedules. We all went to school six hours a day, five days a week.

Today, as I understand, the problem with all these alternative schedules and classes, students are not performing as well on standardized tests as we did 30 years ago. So how can you blame summer vacation? The difference is performance was demanded of us, or we were failed and held back. Today, it seems we just make excuses for poor performance and allow the students to advance while not performing.

Jessica Cunningham, I was wondering if we could get your response to that.

CUNNINGHAM: Sure, I think lots of things have changed in those 30 years, and I don't think it's just about making excuses for the kids. I think that there are - unfortunately, there are more homes now, where, you know, like the caller said, kids don't have opportunities to do really positive, engaging things during the summer.

And so, you know, maybe when that particular person was a kid, he wasn't just sitting around all summer watching his little brothers and sisters. Maybe he was going to the library and reading. Some of our kids don't necessarily have access to good public libraries or access to great museums or even the knowledge that those museums are there and that it's another learning opportunity.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in. This is Jason, Jason calling from Casper, Wyoming. Jason, are you there? And Jason seems to have found better things to do in Casper. Let's go instead to Sherry(ph), Sherry's with us from Napa in California.

SHERRY: Yes, I am.

CONAN: Go ahead, you're on the air.

SHERRY: So I'm not entirely sure, after hearing the conversation, that I really disagree. I would just like to offer a few observations of my own. My youngest daughter is now 31, but when she was in junior high school, just as she was about to enter junior high school, we pulled her out of school and moved to Indonesia for two years.

She did no schooling, but she learned another language, she studied a culture, and she's an aerospace engineer. Now, we are in a very fortunate position to have been able to do that, but we also took in foster children for 25 years. None of those children were as fortunate as my children, certainly did not have the opportunities that they had.

However, we regularly took those children, who came from very diverse and very troubled backgrounds, we regularly took them out of school, on a regular basis, all throughout the year. Sometimes the schools would object, but we did it anyway, and we would simply do things with them.

Now, this is why I'm not sure I disagree. I think all of your speakers have talked about quality and exposure. So I'm not sure that I entirely disagree. My disagreement would be that if you're talking about school programs, in other words programs that have them doing reading and math and history or whatever, during the summer as well as during the year, then I vehemently disagree because I think part of what has happened is that as the world has changed and as schools are trying to keep up - you know, our schools are trying to compete with other countries, et cetera, et cetera, and at the same time our teachers are being asked to be both parents and teachers.

And to give an inordinate amount of tests so that we can measure, none of which I think works very well - they aren't really able to teach as much. And so the children are more stressed, and the children are not learning as well. That's all true. But I don't think that's because they need summer programs. I think that's because we need to change the way the school day works throughout the school year.

CONAN: Ron Fairchild, the idea of pulling your kid out of school, even for a couple of days, much less a couple of years, boy, you'd run into a lot of problems with that today, wouldn't you?

FAIRCHILD: You know, I think Sherry makes a really good point about the fact that schools can't do this alone. And certainly we expect our schools to provide a solid foundation of knowledge and skills for all of our kids. And we know some schools are providing a much stronger, a more solid foundation for kids than others.

But I think this also goes back to, you know, the - I believe it was Zach's point earlier that he teaches in a Title I school, and you know, to have those hard-fought gains that teachers and principals and parents work on during the school year, to see those erode year after year, there have to be - there have to be ways that community organizations, nonprofits, other groups can partner with schools to make sure that kids get the kind of experiences that Sherry's talking about, certainly not a trip to Indonesia but opportunities that expand their horizons and give them windows into worlds that aren't currently there.

And I would just like to mention there are a number of national organizations that do exactly that, and KIPP is a great model of an organization that actually runs schools from start to finish. And there are other models of programs that specialize in exactly what we're talking about, just summer programs.

So organizations like Summer Advantage or Bell or a group called Horizons that partner with public schools, deliver services to public schools, but those services are qualitatively different from what kids get during the school year so they get a chance to have exposure to libraries and aquariums and museums and art and music and soccer and robotics and all kinds of great activities during the summer, but they're brought in in a way that makes sense and that parents can access much more easily and free.

CONAN: Sherry, thanks very much for the call.

SHERRY: Thank you. I really agree with what he just said. That's (technical difficulty).

CONAN: OK.

SHERRY: They just need to be exposed to lots of things (technical difficulty). Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thank you. Here's an email from Catherine: I'm a director of an old-fashioned summer camp. We work on language, physics, math and science by cooking, playing games, climbing trees and damming creeks. We keep them sharp by applying what they learned during the school year in fun and practical ways. We have scholarships and work with kids from all socioeconomic backgrounds and home lives.

And let's see if we can get another caller in. Let's go next to Paul. And Paul with us from Avon in Ohio.

PAUL: Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

PAUL: I am a high school teacher as well as a parent. I have three young daughters. And my thoughts on summer retention and summer work is that from - when I was, you know, not just as a teacher, when I was a child, when I was young, my parents always took me to the library and that, you know, there was always incentives and summer reading programs. I was always a reader, so it was a little bit easier for me that they were available there.

But even for students who don't have access necessarily to libraries or those types of resources, I find it hard to believe that any school would not be supportive of any work that the students or the parents want to get from the school for their children over the summertime.

So I am in support of the idea of a break. I don't know if it necessarily needs to be three months, but I think it's really not that difficult to supplement the students' education over the summer. As an English teacher, obviously I can only speak to reading, doesn't necessarily help with math. I don't know many students who are going to do drill and grill with mathematics and times tables. But even when as an English teacher, I can say it doesn't matter what you read as long as the content is appropriate, your attention is going to stay high and your reading comprehension is going to be good.

CONAN: Jessica Cunningham, the program you were describing, a three-week course in July, it's not as if you're using up the whole summer vacation.

CUNNINGHAM: Right. Kids don't have at least four weeks off in a summer. In some regions, they have even more than that. So we absolutely give them opportunities to do other things, which we think are really important.

CONAN: And I'm sure you would endorse the idea that in those times off, maybe they should go to the library?

CUNNINGHAM: Absolutely. And, I mean, they also, you know, to this point, we actually give them assignments when they leave us in June to complete, you know, while they're on their own. It won't take up the entire time, but, you know, you have your KIPP work to do, and then you also can go to the pool.

CONAN: All right. As long as you don't have to read those books I was assigned in the summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Anyway, Paul, thanks very much for the call. Here's an email from Annie in Galveston: I'm a fifth grade reading teacher. I have some advice I offer for parents. Kids should only earn as much screen time as they read, i.e. two hours of reading will equal two hours of video games, TV or computer. A simple rule that works. We're talking about how to keep kids' minds engaged to not go off on that summer slide, where they lose proficiency in math and reading. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let me reintroduce our guests: Ron Fairchild, founder of the Smarter Learning Group, and Jessica Cunningham, founder of KIPP DC WILL Academy, a charter middle school. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Heather. Heather with us from Minneapolis.

HEATHER: Hi. OK. So I guess, first, technically I'm a soon-to-be parent. And my father actually taught us about three weeks - three times a week - math and sciences. And we were grilled. And so when we got back to school, we were ahead of the rest of the whole class. I mean, school became boring. So I guess my question mainly is, since I'm now pregnant, I still like my father's method. I did great in school. It was just, like I said, I really hated it because I was so far ahead. We were also going to school during the No Child Left Behind Act. So we were super far ahead in a lot of cases. What's the best way I can teach my child like my father did, but yet not have them bored with school?

CONAN: Ron Fairchild, is it time to think about skipping a year?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FAIRCHILD: Well, you know, certainly, you don't want to - you want to challenge your children wherever they are. And so obviously, I think if you can do that at home and make sure that kids are being challenged, then I think having a conversation with the teachers back in the fall and during the regular school year to make sure that your child is appropriately placed, that they're involved in material that really challenges them.

And to go back to Paul's point, I think the single most important thing if I - you could have one recommendation to parents is just to get and keep their kids reading over the summer. And even kids who are reluctant readers, make sure that they have material that interests them, and keep them reading. It's the single most important thing that they can do to prevent those learning losses.

So do reading lists, do special interest reading, read to and with them, share books with them, talk about magazines and newspapers that you have in the house. Make sure that kids are exposed to words. And keep some of those routines over the summer.

I think the other point about screen time, set some limits on things and make sure that just because it's summer it doesn't mean that anything goes in terms of how much time they're spending in front of screens and snacking, because one topic we haven't really talked about are setbacks that kids experience in health and nutrition over the summer. And far too many kids spend too much time snacking and sitting in front of screens, where the only activity they're getting is with their thumbs on a video game controller. So I think that, you know, more and more families and kids need to figure out ways to make sure that kids are physically active too.

CONAN: That's incredibly important because we talked about all the baseball and running through sprinklers. But as Ron Fairchild has said, Jessica Cunningham, a lot of the time - well, kids don't go outside some places because it's not safe to go outside.

CUNNINGHAM: Absolutely. And it's definitely one of the concerns that our parents have in many of the communities that our kids come from at KIPP.

CONAN: And as you look ahead to the school year, when does your summer school start?

CUNNINGHAM: It starts on Monday. We're really excited. I just came from one of our schools and teachers are getting ready, getting those bulletin boards up. So we're very excited to see them bright and early on Monday morning.

CONAN: So Fourth of July, you get a week off and then back to school.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CUNNINGHAM: That's right.

CONAN: All right. Thanks. Good luck with the summer session. We appreciate your time today.

CUNNINGHAM: Thanks so much.

CONAN: Jessica Cunningham, founder of KIPP D.C.: WILL Academy and chief academic officer for KIPP D.C. schools, joined us here in Studio 3A. Ron Fairchild, good luck on your visit to Mississippi.

FAIRCHILD: Thank you.

CONAN: Ron Fairchild, founder of Smarter Learning Group and joined us today from member station WKNO in Memphis, Tennessee.

Up next, NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman will join us, just back from a month in Afghanistan. He's brought back with him the stories of soldiers serving there. As the drawdown begins, did we make a difference in Afghanistan? If you served, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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