Trying to halt summer slide Research: A study by two Johns Hopkins University sociologists offers encouraging and discouraging information about the impact of year-round schooling and the vacation drop-off in learning.


THE IDEA OF year-round schooling doesn't resonate in the suburbs.

It's been shot down over the years in several Maryland subdivisions. The ammunition is economic and nostalgic.

Year-round schools, it's said, would disrupt family vacations and the multimillion-dollar summer camp industry. Restaurants and other businesses would be deprived of summer help.

And kids wouldn't be allowed to be kids -- to play pickup baseball through those endless summer days, splash in the neighborhood pool and go to weeknight Oriole games.

Never mind that the term "year-round" is a misnomer. Almost all of the nation's 2,800 "year-round" schools have simply rearranged the yearly calendar so that 180 days are distributed differently.

America's schools, even its year-round schools, have nowhere near the number of school days of Japan (243) or Germany (225), where students consistently outperform Americans in achievement testing.

The suburbanites might also argue that their children don't need year-round schooling. These kids are less likely to "forget" in the summer. They're around books and around adults who read books. Summer travel is enlightening, and those summer camps are as educational as many schools. By and large, affluent kids don't experience the "summer slide."

Poor city youngsters do. The summer slide is a phenomenon that hasn't been well researched. It's also one that might help explain why city kids perform so poorly in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) tests.

One of the longest-running and most fascinating studies of summer slide is that of Johns Hopkins University sociologists Karl Alexander and Doris Entwisle, who started following 790 Baltimore students as first-graders in 1982. Their research, reported by the Abell Foundation this month, is promising and disheartening.

What's encouraging? School does make a difference. If you test kids at the beginning and end of the school year, instead of

every spring (as does MSPAP), you find that affluent and poor progress at about the same rate. "All children learn more when they are in school," Alexander and Entwisle assert.

But a summer drop-off -- or at least a leveling off -- occurs among the poor. Moreover, the "summer learning gap," as it is called, widens as children move through the early grades, with the largest losses in the first two summers.

Those first two years, of course, are precisely when children are learning to read. But the Hopkins sociologists' research finds that verbal gains over the summer are larger than math gains, suggesting that math learning might be more dependent on schooling.

Given these findings, we could expect Baltimore's only year-round elementary school, Robert W. Coleman in West Baltimore, to have reversed the summer slide -- or at least to have shown some signs of reversal -- in the nearly four years

since the school converted to a year-round program. (Coleman runs on a schedule of four 45-day terms separated by three 15-day "intersessions" and the month of July.)

However, that hasn't happened. Coleman's MSPAP scores are near the bottom among city schools and declined between 1995 and 1997. That's one of the reasons Coleman was included on FTC the state's failing school list in 1996.

Principal Addie Johnson says the school changed its reading program that year to Direct Instruction, a method that "doesn't show up well in performance-based testing" such as MSPAP.

Other than the frustration of rock-bottom scores, Johnson says, Coleman has embraced the year-round schedule.

"Everyone understands what it means to be year-round," she says. "We don't have to spend a lot of time reviewing when a new term starts. Year-round is the real world."

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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