Summer changes the starting line

How did you spend your summer vacation? It is a wonderful back-to-school conversation prompt. It turns out that the answer to that question has significant implications for children and the advantages that they bring to school in the fall.

My summer reading included Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 publication, Outliers, where he explores what makes some people more successful than others. He is adamant that our belief in superior ability and hard work as the only explanations for success is wrong. Over and over he shows how “outliers,” those people who appear to be exceptional, find success because of their own assets but also because of external opportunities and advantages.

I was particularly intrigued by his exploration of the well-documented academic achievement gap between children of means and poor children. The gap is troubling and has been a rationale for school reform. It is confounding and extremely difficult to close. Gladwell reminds us that typical explanations for the gap point to differences in intellectual ability, lack of effort, poor parenting or some failing by educators. He offers another explanation: what kids do during the summer.

Citing research by Karl Alexander on test-score differences between socioeconomic classes of elementary schoolchildren in the Baltimore public schools, he establishes that the gap grows from relatively narrow in first grade to wide by fifth grade. The wealthiest first-graders have a 32-point advantage over their poor classmates; by fifth grade the gap has nearly doubled.

The researchers tested performance at the beginning and end of the school year every year for five years and added up the total gain. This made it possible to gauge growth caused by the school experience. It turns out that over the five years poor kids learned more from their school experience than wealthier kids. Schools made a big difference, but they did not close the gap.

To see if it might explain the growing gap, the researchers looked at changes in reading scores after summer vacation: Bingo! The numbers jumped out. Each year, reading scores at the end of the summer grew for wealthy children, while scores for poor children declined for the first two grades and increased modestly after that. The cumulative difference was a total gain over five years of .26 points for poor children compared to a 52.49-point gain for those from high-income families. “Poor kids may outlearn rich kids during the school year,” Gladwell observed, “but during the summer, they fall far behind.”

Children are always learning. Schools provide one opportunity, but the kinds of opportunities available outside of school are not equally available to all children. Wealthier families can offer children wonderful enrichment through travel, outings and enrollment in enrichment programs. This is one of the important ways in which economic status contributes to differences in school performance. It isn’t about ability. It is about opportunity.

In the last few years, summer opportunities for youth have grown in our community. Lake Erie Ink invites kids to write and the Reaching Heights Summer Music Camp engages them in music. Open Doors and the Heights Youth Club have wonderful structured opportunities that enrich, develop and strengthen our children. And there are a broad variety of experiences offered through religious congregations, city government, and multiple cultural and arts institutions.

These opportunities are wonderful, but widespread access, regardless of economic status, is still a challenge. Gladwell points out that parents have different ideas about how much they should program their children and push them into these enrichment opportunities. Differences in parenting traditions affect the use of these opportunities, and, of course, financial ability can stymie access to structured enrichment and family-centered adventures.

If, as Gladwell argues, access to enrichment is relevant to academic success and affects the achievement gap, we need to look more broadly for solutions. It is time to end our prejudices about intellectual ability and human potential, parents' commitment to their children, and educator quality. We need to abandon the narrative of success as evidence that some people are more worthy than others. We need to acknowledge that privilege is powerful.

If we want to equalize educational outcomes, we need to find ways to level the playing field—especially the part that is defined by economics. That includes during the summer and other out-of-school times.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 7, Issue 9, Posted 1:40 PM, 08.28.2014