Children are learning all the time, Baltimore schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey is fond of saying. They learn even in the summer, a 10-week vacation for the vast majority of Maryland's 750,000 schoolchildren.
Do kids fall behind during that time? Is there "summer learning loss," as the educators call it? Dumber for the summer?
Depends on what kind of learning you're talking about -- and what kind of students. Also depends on whose research you're looking at. "It's very clear that all children do better on testing if they go to school in the summer, but low-income children gain the most," says Charles Ballinger, who heads the National Association for Year-Round Education.
Dr. Ballinger cites several studies showing that low-income students gain from year-round schools, but so do middle-class and rich kids, who tend to have much more mental stimulation in the summer from camps, family vacations and reading at home.
Dr. Ballinger, of course, has a point of view. He wants to expand the number of year-round schools beyond the 1.7 million students they now reach.
Two John Hopkins sociologists, however, have no such bias and reach similar conclusions.
With almost no publicity, Karl L. Alexander and Doris R. Entwisle have been monitoring a group of city schoolchildren since 1982, observing the students' personal and educational development. Among other fascinating findings: City schools held back almost 40 percent of the original 790 students at some point in their academic careers. (Dr. Alexander believes retention "rarely harms children and often helps, particularly in the early grades.") Roughly half stayed in city schools and there were 100 dropouts.
Drs. Alexander and Entwisle found that during the first five grades, the achievement gap between middle-income and low-income students widened substantially, a fact to which middle-school educators can attest.
But the Hopkins sociologists attributed the widening gap almost entirely to gains that children from middle-class backgrounds made during the summer.
"Children learn year-round, yet most studies neglect seasonal variation in children's learning rates," Drs. Alexander and Entwisle wrote in an academic paper last fall. "The oversight may be most serious in the first few grades, which is when the largest seasonal disparities are registered."
"The schools don't get enough credit for helping poor children keep pace," Dr. Alexander said in an interview. "They keep pace when they're in school, but not when they're out of school. This suggests that urban schools are doing a better job than they're ** usually given credit for."
It also suggests that summer school may be important for poor kids. "For the sake of these students, we need to devote funds to summer school," said Christopher T. Cross, president of the state Board of Education. "We also need to improve what we do with the time we spend on education all year round; otherwise we'll have year-round schools but not year-round education. Maryland educators need to take advantage of federal Title I funds and state money targeted to disadvantaged children in summer programs."
Mr. Cross was a member of the National Commission on Time and Learning, which last fall said that American schools need to spend much more time on the core academic subjects if the nation is to remain a ranking world economic power.
But prolonging the school day or year is harder done than said. The state board learned this a few years ago when it suggested expanding the school year from 180 to 200 days. Such proposals evoke emotional reactions, mostly from suburbanites, who can cite legitimate research showing that year-round schools produce no improvement in achievement. Too, much of the opposition derives from nostalgia for those crazy, lazy, hazy days of summer that many parents believe should be a part of a child's development.
Also, teachers would expect to be paid extra if they worked beyond the state-required 180 days, and air conditioning is an expensive necessity in a climate such as Maryland's. (About two-thirds of the state's schools are fully air-conditioned, according to a recent survey.)
The dispute seldom gets around to a definition of "learning." Kids will be learning something tonight when they light illegal firecrackers. For many, simply surviving in the mean streets is a type of learning that is unlikely to be tested in the Maryland School Performance Program.
Dr. Amprey dreams of merging the two -- the learning that comes from books and the learning that comes from experiences and observations every waking hour of every day of the year.
A radical idea
Imagine what would happen if every professional working in Baltimore gave an hour or two a week to sit in a public library and help a city kid with reading or writing or math.
Too many of the children don't enjoy the blessings others took for granted: parents who read to them at night, who make sure they do homework, who visit their schools and talk to their teachers.
Recently, a colleague began working with one poor, bright child struggling with reading.
The boy, a fifth-grader, stumbled on words here and there but beamed with enthusiasm when he sounded them out with a little help. He vowed he would use his intelligence and he would make it.
"And he will, you look at him, and you know he will," the colleague said. "Somebody cared, and that makes all the difference."
Maybe we could help rebuild the schools and reinvent the city the only way it can be done, a child at a time.