The Untold Tragedy About What Happens to Low-Income Students in the Summer


“Summer Slide” sounds like a school kid’s dream — the name of an amusement park attraction, or backyard water slide — but in reality, it’s a student’s biggest downfall. Summer slide is the term experts use to describe the information that kids forget during the summer months between academic terms. This learning loss happens to all students to a degree, but studies show that it more severely affects minority students, and those from low-income homes. This summer slide is one of the biggest contributors to the overall achievement gap between poor and wealthy students, and ultimately contributes to a number of society-wide problems.

Researchers at the Georgia Family Connection Partnership collected data on summer learning loss and determined that while all students forget some of the information they’ve learned over summer, low-income students lose the most, especially in the critical area of reading. The research also pointed to a correlation between socioeconomic status and race, meaning that black and Latino students are often  poorer and therefore the lowest-performing. This socioeconomic and racial achievement gap has been studied for many years now, and research has proven that summer learning loss only makes it worse. The Beginning School Study out of Baltimore performed research and concluded that in the first grade, low-income students are six months behind their wealthier peers educationally. But by the fifth grade, they are two and a half years behind. The difference is attributed in large part to summer learning loss.

The 2011 results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed that nationally, only 34% of fourth graders tested were below average in reading. But 51% of black students and 50% of Latino students scored below an average level. This low reading performance has lasting effects throughout a student’s life, as research indicates that reading levels at the third grade can predict a student’s likelihood of dropping out in high school.


Summer slide is so clearly drawn across racial and economic lines because poor minority students are most often the ones without academic resources in the summer. Low-income families cannot afford expensive summer programs, and public schools (which usually are struggling for resources themselves) offer nothing outside of summer school for students who have failed a grade. Researchers liken the situation to a faucet: During the school year, the faucet of information and resources is turned on for all students — affluent and low-income alike — and learning flows in. But once summer rolls around, the faucet is suddenly turned off for students without financial resources, and the learning stops. They go through an informational drought and undo all of the progress they made over the past nine months. Middle-class and affluent families are more likely to seek out summer enrichment programs because they have the means to do so, but without financial resources, low-income minority students fall behind.

The experts at the Georgia Family Connection Partnership emphasize that the process of solving summer learning loss must be a joint effort. Making kids prepared for the next grade is not solely the responsibility of schools, but of the parents as well. Parents have to think of themselves as teachers outside the classroom, and reinforce what their children learn in school. Experts recommend that parents talk to their kids about what they learn in school, and expose them to as many learning opportunities as possible . Finding an affordable summer program can be as simple as taking a weekly trip to a museum or library.  

There are, of course, things that schools can and must do to close the achievement gap as well. Some of the suggestions include lengthening the school days or rearranging the academic calendar to fit a year-round model. As opposed to one long drought of a break in the summer, school would have shorter, more frequent breaks that would allow learning to remain constant. While this may not be a possibility for all school districts, there are certainly smaller measures they can take, such as applying for competitive federal grants to fund summertime initiatives.

The last piece of the puzzle involved in solving the summer slide issue is the community at large. This includes local and state governments, as well as private donors who are called upon to increase funding to summer programs. In addition to supplying funds, lawmakers need to put measures in place to hold schools accountable and report on summer programs being implemented.

Ultimately, the issue of summer learning loss isn’t some pitiable problem only relevant to a small portion of the population. It is a public economic problem. Under-educated third graders become high-school dropouts who become unemployed citizens (or worse, part of the criminal justice system) and become liabilities to society. It’s estimated that if 1,200,000 students from the class of 2011 who dropped out had graduated instead, the U.S. economy would have benefited from an additional $154,000,000,000 in wages over the course of their lifetimes. Education is such an incredibly important tool, and one whose effects extend far beyond any one individual. That’s why we need to make sure that every student in this country is able to receive — and keep — the education they deserve.