Summer Homework: The Debate is Over

-by Jack M. Jose

Every spring, conversations erupt in PTO meetings and team conferences about summer homework, and conflict blooms like forsythia bushes. It is a predictable pattern. Overworked parents, stressed students, concerned teachers join educational activists like Alfie Kohn[1] to make a strong and rational case: let children be children, especially in the summer.

The Heart Says …

How true this feels! There is no debate that summer holds a romantic place in the memories of our childhood, spending leisurely days catching crayfish in the creek, playing whiffle ball outside until the streetlights came on, and the evening giving way to long nights spent chasing fireflies. 90 days free from concerns about school, free from responsibilities, unencumbered by deadlines and chores. The description is so fanciful that it seems almost mythical, and our love for our children is so great that we can’t imagine a childhood bereft  of these idyllic landscapes.

Children use summer, and any length of available time, to create and to explore. With vast amounts of time and resources, they can build and learn in new ways. They can explore their bookshelves to find lost treasures of favorite books from the past, or stay up late in the evening building a new model or sorting cards acquired during the day.

The Data Says …

This is a lovely argument. One would surely be evil to suggest tampering with this particular Degas painting of summer! And for some students, perhaps as many as 30% of them residing in the top brackets of socio-economic status (SES) in the US, this might be their reality.

However, when it comes to the skill that is the building block of all learning – reading – summer homework is a necessary way to help our students achieve their greatest potential. It turns out that during that long summer away from the structure and routine of school instruction and work, students lose some of the skills they gained during the year. There is no dispute about summer slide – the fact that summer away from school results in a loss in reading skill, on average a month’s loss. In fact, through the average summer, this can create a “3-month gap in reading scores between middle- and low-income children.”[2] And the gap between low-income and high-income students is even more pronounced. This happens as middle-income children maintain the reading level they had in May, while low-income students slide and high-income students continue to grow.

Worse yet, at the high school level, we are often trying to offset differences and deficits that were years in the making. An oft-cited Johns Hopkins meta study on summer slide reveals that “prior to high school, the achievement gap by family SES traces substantially to unequal learning opportunities in children’s home and community environments,”[3] and shows that this gap can become the equivalent of several years’ gains in reading.

So “summers off” is a plan, but only if we are content to accept that a child’s parent’s income should determine that, at the end of the educational process, some children should be several grade levels ahead of others in reading skill. We believe that a strong education serves to limit our differences, and to provide each graduate with an equal opportunity for success. From there, a person’s effort, grit, and creativity should be the primary determinants of their success. Education, especially public education, should not content itself with perpetuating advantages provided by socio-economic status. Nor should we be in the business of reinforcing disadvantages among these groups.

Putting the Studies in Perspective

We understand that these studies are discussing averages, and trends over time, not describing individual families. The habits in a particular household are not determined by the parent’s income level. A studious low-income parent can help their child resist this trend, while a wealthy parent who provides no summer enrichment for their child can set them up for the type of slide that the studies suggest they will not experience. These are not absolute truths, but rather large-scale trends that we would ignore at our own peril.

The Johns Hopkins study cited earlier suggests that school might well be the answer to address this inequality. “[W]ith learning gains across social lines more nearly equal during the school year, the experience of schooling tends to offset the unequalizing press of children’s out-of-school learning environments.” So socio-economic differences at home can create large gaps in student achievement, and school can offset that gap by improving growth and academic performance for all students.

This position creates challenging conversations, especially in a diverse school like Gamble Montessori. Some of our students, 15% or so, have parents who are college educated professionals. More of our students’ parents are working-class, who despite their hard work and full employment qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch – our best measure of students living at or near the poverty line. Finally, a large percentage of our students live in poverty. Each spring, one or more of our college-educated, active, and involved parents who have time and inclination to join our PTO or Instructional Leadership Team, make the case against summer homework. They make it passionately, in much the same terms as it is made in the opening paragraphs of this essay. It is a compelling argument for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it is likely be true for their child. They are right to make this argument and to raise these important questions, and I welcome their involvement in the discussion.

It was in one of these meetings two years ago where I realized the nature of the argument against summer homework, but I could not find a gentle way to word it. Finally, I decided on asking simply this: “Are we suggesting that we should only give summer homework to the poor kids?” The answer is, of course, no.

So if we know that summer homework helps our poorest readers, and we know that it does no harm to our best readers, except for infringing upon the idyllic summer that we recall, how can we do summer homework well, so it meets the needs of all of our children and families? Here is our best answer.

Doing Summer Homework Right – For Everyone

With the help of the parents, our Instructional Leadership Team set out to right-size summer homework so that it would encourage and foster the growth of skills among all of our students, without eliminating the magic of summer for any of them. In doing so, we set some parameters, asking ourselves, how do we measure the work to determine whether it was just the right amount? The parameters we discuss divide the rest of the conversation below: the amount of time it took to complete, the number of subjects we covered, its value in the class for which it was assigned, whether it was new or review work, and its role in helping a child develop skills that relate to success beyond school such as managing their time and meeting deadlines.

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To make the rest of the conversation possible, we had to first set limits on the amount of time a child should have to spend completing homework. More than one conscientious parent had shared with us the story of their child, who struggled with homework in general, spending many summer nights figuratively chained to their kitchen tables, crying at the weight of the work. This was no one’s idea of a summer well spent.

After some debate, we concluded, without basis in any scientific research, that 40 or so hours was right for an entire summer’s worth of school work. With June, July, and about half of August comprising summer, this meant about 50 minutes a day. This seemed a reasonable amount of time over the summer. Not intrusive, just a regular checking in to keep the skills sharp. Once this number was proposed, there was little further official discussion, though away from the table the question is still alive. We generally agreed that this felt right.

Subjects

The summer slide research cited above focuses on reading skills. A RAND corporation study cites the research of Cooper and Nye (1996) that determined “summer learning loss was greater, on average, in math than in reading,” and that this was more consistent across socio-economic lines than was the reading slide. It was reasonable to expect that reading was the skill that students were MOST likely to use in the summer. Therefore, a thoughtful summer homework program would involve all core subjects.

Again, we applied the cap of 40 hours total, which left 10 or 8 hours, depending on the grade of the student and whether foreign language work was included.

Connection to class / function

A common complaint among students, and a very valid one, was that their summer homework assignments languished on the teacher’s desk and had no connection to what they were covering in class. I knew, from discussions with teachers, that this was indeed the case. Papers would sit on their desks, or in briefcases or files, for weeks and weeks, checked in but not graded.

Apparently, both students and teachers saw summer homework as meaningless busywork!

Some teachers were magnifying the impression by not grading and returning the work promptly, other than to indicate whether it was complete. Worse yet, no connections were being made between the work they did over the summer and the work that was to be completed in class the first few weeks. Small wonder that year after year we struggled to get students to complete this work!

So at Gamble we added a stipulation that summer homework had to relate directly to instruction the first two weeks of the school year. This served the purpose of emphasizing its importance, while helping to explain why there was a deadline at all.

New vs Review Content

The term “summer slide” indicates the loss of existing knowledge. If this is what we were attempting to avoid through the administration of summer homework, then we had to assign work that was not new. The first year we reviewed our summer homework through this lens, the work seemed nearly impossible, especially in math. In addition to a short review of the previous year’s skills, much of the work in our existing summer homework covered topics (albeit in introductory form) that our students had not been exposed to in the classroom. Especially in math, this seemed counter-intuitive, and the math teachers at the table immediately agreed to change it. How can we justify grading students for doing quality work on problem types that they have never seen before?

We set the expectation moving forward that work was meant to be a review, and not for new content. Of course, students could read new books, and apply their grade-level reading skills to new texts, but in science and math, summer was not the time to try to add new skills without the aid of a teacher or guide.

Timing / Executive Function

Of course, we found that two types of students completely undermined our plans: the procrastinators, and the planners. One year, my last in the classroom, we handed the summer homework out a week prior to dismissal. One the last day, Lisa approached me, “Here, Mr. Jose.” She handed me a folder, inside were several stapled packets. “What’s this, Lisa?” I asked.

“My summer homework,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Math and science on the left, English and social studies on the right.”

“Umm,” I tried to buy time. “I, uh, don’t really have a place to put this right now, it’s due in, what, August? So,” I handed the folder back. “I’m going to have to ask you to hold on to this.” Lisa was a planner, and she was not about to let the few last days of packing up rooms and free time in some classes go by unused. She had completed her summer homework, she told me, mostly in the classrooms of other teachers, some of whom were showing movies or not providing work at the conclusion of final exams.

Our procrastinators are a different kind of problem. These are the students who plan on having the opportunity in the first weeks of school to complete all of their summer homework. I’ve worked in schools where those students were held in the auditorium or some classroom until they completed the work, or even suspended, not allowed to join their classmates for the opening days of instruction. While this may have provided a strong message that summer homework was required, it really undermined our message that what happens in the classrooms in the opening days is essential to a successful year, and sets those students up for failure. These same procrastinators could rightly argue in some cases, as explained above, that since the work was not graded anyway, they should not rightfully receive a deduction for completing it near the end of the first quarter. (This was part of the reason we instituted the expectation that teachers would utilize the work in a meaningful way in the first weeks of class. In this way, students were rewarded for doing the work, the significance of the class time was upheld, and students’ grades would be appropriately harmed not by an arbitrary grade given by a teacher, but by their own lack of having completed the requisite work.)

These students, both the planners and the procrastinators, lost the primary executive function practice that can be gained from summer homework. Done consistently, these periods of student work can not only erase summer slide, but can reinforce schedule-making and time-management skills among students. This is the hidden goal of summer homework, and the advantage to all students: practicing your ability to manage your time helps promote self-efficacy and leads to greater success far beyond the classroom.

One thing that every student gains from summer homework, if done well, are the skills that collectively are called executive functioning, some of which are: planning and organizing, managing time, strategizing, remembering details, making corrections, and knowing when – and who – to ask for help. The best summer homework structure that I have seen for this is one that we have not implemented at Gamble, but was required of students at Clark Montessori. The work was to be mailed in at certain intervals in the summer. The beauty of their plan was that it helped structure the summer, and developed executive function. It worked to the strengths of the planner, and to eliminate the weaknesses of the procrastinator.

While this obviously served to help the teacher manage the grading load, the effect on the students was even more pronounced. To make this work, students had to plan their summer a little more meticulously, figuring out when and how they were going to complete this work. Instead of cramming it in to one or two weeks just before school started, this plan required students to do the very thing that prevented summer slide: to do their work periodically and summon those same skills repeatedly over time. Students were required to not only complete the homework, but to manage a range of skills that would serve them in many other places in life.

In Conclusion / In Perspective

Summer homework is not a villain, stealing away summer from our children. Nor is it a panacea, for while it does save our students from regression and the achievement gap, it comes at a cost. Done correctly, summer homework is a meaningful review of work that bridges the gap between last year and next, while helping a student develop the management skills needed to not just pass a class, but to structure the more complex projects that lie ahead of them.

In his instructive work The Conditions of Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points out that periods of intense engagement heighten the sense of value of the time around the event itself. Put another way, moments of structured time in the summer could, in fact, help make the rest of the time seem more precious in context. The flipside of the perfect summer, with the whole time idled away, is the moment of terror the day before school begins again, and the inability to remember what happened as the days melted into a blur of hours lost doing whatever came to mind. The summer best spent is with a mix of structured and unstructured time; time to do the things that need to be done, and time to discover what wants to be done. In fact, the summer well spent might look like a good spring break.

[1] http://www.alfiekohn.org/blogs/summer/

[2] http://www.cslpreads.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/CSLP-Summer-Reading-White-Paper-2015.pdf

[3] http://www.ewa.org/sites/main/files/file-attachments/summer_learning_gap-2.pdf

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