The Baltimore City school system's proposal to eliminate the Advanced Placement Summer Academy, the city's only summer enrichment program for academically advanced students, will reportedly trim $99,000 from the budget as part of an overhaul of the school system's summer programs, which aims to save a total of $2.5 million.
It's no secret that money for schools is tight. City schools are facing cuts from the state on top of an estimated $72 million deficit. Budget plans must balance many needs, ranging from renovating aging facilities to supporting new college and career-ready standards.
But that's all the more reason to consider carefully the true cost of every cut, including the proposed elimination of the AP Summer Academy. The city launched the program as part of an effort to expand summer learning beyond remediation. It is the only free summer program for academically advanced Baltimore public school students, and in deciding its fate we should take into account two national problems: the excellence gap and summer learning loss.
The excellence gap refers to mounting evidence, first reported in 2010 by Jonathan Plucker, Nathan Burroughs, and Ruiting Song, that at the highest achievement levels, differences between socio-economic and racial groups have widened in most states, including Maryland. The data support the argument that focusing on getting more students to minimum competency under No Child Left Behind has come at the cost of helping talented, disadvantaged students reach their academic potential. Researchers estimate it could take 72 years to close the excellence gap between whites and Hispanics in fourth grade mathematics and 31 years to close the gap between whites and blacks.
Last month brought a new study funded by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, "Equal Talents, Unequal Opportunities: A Report Card on State Support for Academically Talented Low-Income Students." The study found that most states pay little attention to advanced learning. In Maryland, where 30 percent of students under 18 live in low-income households, we received a "C" for state support provided to academically talented students and a "C+" for our outcomes, i.e. how well students performed in national assessments in math and reading.
Eliminating the AP Summer Academy supports the prevalent myth that most academically talented kids, whatever their circumstances, will thrive on their own. But the accumulating evidence suggests the cost of ignoring advanced learners is high, especially for low-income and minority students. If there is no public school summer program for students at the top, the kids from families who can afford it will find other programs; the rest will have no summer academic support. The schools they return to in September cannot make up for the difference this kind of summer opportunity can make.
That brings us to the second issue we must consider: summer learning loss. Over the last 100 years, researchers have established that students, especially those from low-income families, lose knowledge attained in school during the summer. How much knowledge? On average, students lost more than two months of grade-level equivalency in math computation skills over the summer, according to a 1996 study by Harris Cooper of Duke University. Again, there's a disturbing gap: Low-income students showed a significant loss in reading achievement in the summer, while their middle-class counterparts seemed to improve.
Summer academic enrichment programs, like the AP Summer Academy, can help. Not offering them to low-income students, many of whom lack access to the courses, camps, vacations and trips to cultural institutions available to their more affluent peers, could be detrimental, says Marc Stein, a Johns Hopkins School of Education professor whose research interests include summer learning loss. Mr. Stein, citing research by Hopkins' Karl Alexander, says summer learning loss has been shown to be related to socioeconomic gaps in high school graduation and college entrance.
"The kids who are most in need are least likely to get connected to summer opportunities that could be potentially beneficial, and that's a problem," he says.
A 2013 story about the AP Summer Academy posted on the school system's website depicts a vibrant place where learning isn't about passively listening to lectures, it's about actively engaging in ideas, like creating a new government from scratch and debating recent Supreme Court rulings.
As Malik, then a rising sophomore at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, said in the story, "I really like government. For me learning about government all day — it doesn't get much better than that."
And Faith, his AP Summer Academy and Poly classmate, agreed. "Being at school in summer is awesome."
I couldn't agree with them more. These are the students who will pay the price of cutting the AP Summer Academy. Their schools will pay as well; they cannot make up for summer learning loss and so their overall performance will suffer. The city as a whole suffers too; graduation rates and college attendance in Baltimore are already too low. Eliminate any opportunity to sustain and enhance summer learning for bright Baltimore students and we only ensure the excellence gap will continue to widen.
Elaine Tuttle Hansen is the executive director of The Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, the former president of Bates College, and past provost of Haverford College. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.