Recognizing that academic skills tend to slip when students are out of classes, researchers from around the country called yesterday for summer school to be offered to more children to help them catch up and get ahead.
Children of all income levels tend to learn at similar rates during the school year. But during the summer, those from middle- and upper-income families keep learning and those from low-income families show few gains - a trend summer classes can help correct, researchers said.
"Lower-income children can learn, but they start out behind and fall further behind when out of school," said Karl L. Alexander, a sociology professor at the Johns Hopkins University and one of the country's leading experts on summer learning. "Disadvantaged, low-income children are not progressing in the summer months out of school, but that is not so for upper-income children."
The researchers - gathered at Johns Hopkins for the nation's first academic conference devoted exclusively to summer learning - also looked at promising results from various programs aimed at boosting children's skills, through remedial instruction for failing pupils and en- richment for those on grade level.
"It is a well-established fact that what happens in the summer has implications for the achievement gap," said Geoffrey D. Borman, an associate research scientist at Johns Hopkins' Center for Social Organization of Schools.
The two-day conference - sponsored by Hopkins, the Open Society Institute and Teach Baltimore, a nonprofit summer academic program for elementary pupils - comes at a time when interest in summer learning and summer school has never been higher.
In a recent survey by Borman of the nation's 100 largest school districts, all reported having a form of summer school, with 92 percent offering a form of remediation for low-performing students. He estimated that, based on the survey, one in five students in these districts are enrolled in a summer school program.
For example, Michigan has dramatically increased its spending on a summer reading program for kindergarten through third grade, from $1 million in 1998 to $5 million last year to $16 million this summer, said Scott Paris, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Michigan. That is scheduled to increase to $38 million in 2001.
Standards developed by Paris and others in Michigan call for children in the programs to receive at least 60 hours of instruction in reading during the four- to six-week programs, ideally with no more than seven children per teacher.
"The greatest benefit was for beginning or struggling readers, usually the youngest children," Paris said of the first two years of results. While older children showed few gains, "there was a consistent increase in phonemic awareness among children who went to summer school."
The gains in the early grades in Michigan are consistent with the nearly 20-year study being conducted by Alexander and other Johns Hopkins researchers following more than 700 children since first grade.
"The first two grades are fundamental, they are the foundation," said Alexander, who gave yesterday's keynote address. "If children don't get it in the first couple of years, it becomes harder and harder."
Alexander recommended a combination of high-quality preschool programs, full-day kindergarten and, beginning with first grade, summer school and other extra help. But he said summer school must go beyond remediation for those at the bottom of the class.
"I am worried about the workability of these mandatory programs where children are labeled failures," Alexander said. "If these summer programs are to work well, they can't be perceived as punishment."