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Separating Myth From Fact in 'Summer Brain Drain'

If you consume any amount of media at all, there’s a good chance you’re already familiar with the idea that kids tend to lose ground academically during the summer months.

But what is the so-called “summer brain drain?” Is it real, or a media invention? And just how concerned should you be?

“We know from decades of research that students come back in the fall about one month behind where they were in the spring,” said Catherine Augustine, a Pittsburgh-based researcher with the RAND Corporation. “That’s on average; some come back exactly where they were and others may be even further ahead. So schools spend a month or so at the beginning of the year reviewing material that students had already grasped in the prior spring.”

RAND has just launched a two-year national study on summer learning programs that seek to combat those effects, following up on a report from last year that acknowledges the reality of “brain drain” but also emphasizes its socioeconomic dimension.

The main problem is that low income students lose ground on average, whereas middle- and high-income students maintain or even gain ground over the summer,” Augustine said.

But the language of “brain drain” itself may be misleading. While academic performance clearly suffers, there is little laboratory research to support the popular notion that children actually surrender some of their neurocognitive muscle during the break – that they literally become dumber in the summer. That’s why experts usually prefer terms like “summer learning loss” or “summer setback.”

We know that being exposed to more vocabulary words and higher level words at an early age does something in childrens' brains,” Augustine said. “So you could hypothesize that the same thing is happening in the summer.”

Common Denominator

Researchers and policymakers have serious concerns about how economic inequality amplifies its effects at a macro level. It’s even more disturbing when you consider the long-range implications for things like crime rates and unemployment.

But what about for individuals? Do Pittsburgh parents have cause for concern that their kids will fall behind?

Not really,” said Greenfield resident Nicole Lott of her two children, Caden and Lexy. “They enjoy summer — they play, they run around outside — but when it’s time to go back to school they don’t complain.”

Caden, 7, is finishing first grade at the Greenfield School and approaching what may be — developmentally speaking — the most critical three months of his academic career.

The addition tables he’s spent the past few months learning are exactly the type of hard-won knowledge that research indicates is most likely to slip away during the interval between school years, regardless of income level.

Caden’s sister Lexy, 11, has struggled to maintain those skills between sessions at Pittsburgh Mifflin.

“Last year, in fourth grade, we were always doing multiplication, and I knew all my 12 tables,” she said. “But then when I came back to school I had a hard time remembering them.”

Researchers say the loss of math skills is more or less universal – probably because, unlike reading, they’re so dependent upon sustained, formal instruction.

The hypothesis is that parents aren’t drilling kids with flashcards over the summer,” Augustine said. “Math skills slide for all students.”

That’s easy enough to understand. For the Lott kids, cracking a book is a natural thing to do on a lazy summer day — Lexy even has a favorite climbing tree where she’ll sometimes sit reading for hours. But their mom sometimes struggles to come up with other kinds of learning opportunities.

Yeah, definitely,” Nicole Lott said. “Because it’s easier to pick up a book and read. Is it easy to do a science project? We could do that, and we do … But yeah, it’s definitely harder to do that, and it would be harder to get them to sit down and do a math worksheet than to read a book.”

Keeping up is that much harder for families in which neither math nor reading is part of the natural rhythm of summer, according to University of Pittsburgh child psychologist Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal.

“There are often fewer opportunities outside of school for kids to learn math,” Votrub-Drzal said. “The discrepancies in those opportunities between higher-and lower-SES (socioeconomic status) kids may be particularly pronounced in the summer months, and there are subgroups of kids who just don’t have and math input.”

Manufacturing Stability

Votruba-Drzal’s research is focused on the intersection of education and poverty. For the populations she studies the problem is bigger than flash-cards and summer camps.

“High exposure to traffic, to noise, to violence, to things in their everyday environment – lead exposure – it’s that stuff,” she said. “But it’s also access to stimulating and engaging conversations with other kids and with adults that are important, especially in the early years, for things like language skill development.”

The Lotts may not be wealthy. But they’re avid readers, and their small house is packed with books. More importantly, it’s on a quiet street in a safe area, and their family life is stable. Lexy and Caden stay busy with activities year-round. They exercise, travel and play in their wooded backyard.

For their less privileged classmates in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, those conditions have to be manufactured, and there are several competing ideas for how best to do that. One is year-round schooling, or a modified school calendar with shorter breaks built in at regular intervals.

Critics of the current system say it’s anachronistic – a throwback to a time when few women worked outside the home. But the idea of going to year-round classes remains unpopular, for a variety of cultural and especially economic reasons.

It’s expensive,” Augustine said. “Parents don’t want it, particularly middle and upper income parents. There are a lot of employers who hire teenagers during the summer and they don’t want year-round school. And then there are, of course, a lot of recreation destinations that lobby against any changes to the current school calendar.”

That may be just as well. Many experts warn that keeping kids in school through the summer poses a real risk of burnout, and could end up defeating the purpose.

“If you just continue through the summer, one of the things you worry about is that you end up killing engagement and motivation,” Votruba-Drzal said. “So you may be improving test scores, but down the road you may be really shooting yourself in the foot with respect to keeping kids loving school and loving learning.”

Researchers think summer-learning programs targeted for the most at-risk students may be a more cost-effective and developmentally sustainable way to offset summer learning loss. That’s the reasoning behind programs like Pittsburgh’s Summer Dreamers Academy – one of five school-district-run programs in the U.S. to be selected for an ambitious study being carried out by the RAND Corporation, with funding from the Wallace Foundation.

Pittsburgh’s program was chosen, in part, because it combines elements of traditional classroom instruction with outdoor activities and other opportunities for relatively unstructured engagement with teachers and peers. “Through those activities they’re also trying to build social and emotional skills through teamwork, through giving students the option to choose their activities and set goals for themselves, and try to achieve them,” Augustine said.  

Those kinds of outcomes may be difficult to measure – and potentially even harder to justify – in the most immediate terms of standardized testing. But they’re precisely the kinds of skills that Votruba-Drzal believes will keep kids actively engaged in learning both in and out of the classroom.

And, if the research bears out the hypothesis, they may also pay dividends when it comes to grades, test scores, graduation rate and the racial achievement gap.

The Kids Are All Right

With respect to the so-called “summer brain drain” and the question of exactly how concerned we should be about it, most experts will acknowledge that there are really two answers.

On the one hand, summer setback is one important component of a much larger problem.

“I think it’s important to have the broader context of what’s happening in our country right now with respect to socioeconomic disparities in kids’ development and their lifetime chances,” Votruba-Drzal said. “It really should be alarming to people.”

At the same time, ironically, the parents who tend to be most rattled by the idea of brain drain — those who enforce daily flashcard drills and fret about getting their kids into the “right” summer camps — generally have the least to be worried about. “From that standpoint,” Votruba-Drzal said, “the extent to which it engenders anxiety in these parents is kind of ridiculous, yeah.”

Catherine Augustine agreed.

“I get a lot of questions from middle-income and higher-income parents about ‘what should I be doing with my child during the summer? Should I be using math flashcards…?’” Augustine said. “And my answer is, honestly, that I think their children will be fine.”

By all indications, the Lott children will be fine. Lexy has her summer books all picked out, and she likes math and science well enough that she’s open to doing a few refreshers, in moderation.

“Not like every day,” she said. “Not like a school assignment. But every once in a while it could help.”

Her brother Caden is not letting brain-drain panic interfere with his summer plans.

“Maybe I can bring a book every time I go to the pool,” he said. “In case I want to dry off a little, I can just read a book.”