Beth M. Miller
Nellie Mae Education Foundation
Karl L. Alexander, Doris R. Entwisle, and Linda Steffel Olson
American Sociological Review
These reports, released more or less to coincide with the end of the school year, argue that summer vacation shares much blame for the achievement gap between kids of low- and high-socioeconomic status (SES). Miller presents past research showing that, during the school year, low- and high-SES students make similar progress on standardized tests. Between spring and fall, however, the scores of low-SES students either level off or decline, while those of high-SES students continue to rise. Research by Alexander and colleagues confirms this trend. Tracking 325 Baltimore students, they found that high-SES students gained a cumulative 47 points on reading test scores during the summer, while their low-SES counterparts lost 2 points. Why such disparities? Miller offers the metaphorical "faucet theory": "learning resources are turned on for all children during the school year. But in the summertime, the faucet is turned off." Affluent youngsters can quench their thirst for knowledge with academic camps, household bookshelves, libraries, bookstores, and family interaction. But many low-SES students don't have access to such resources. Miller quotes an NCES study, for instance, which found that "42.5 percent of children in high-income households attended camp the summer after kindergarten, compared with just 5.4 percent of children in low-income" families. The implicit lesson of these findings, of course, is that reform-minded organizations and philanthropies should turn much of their focus to what they can do outside the classroom. Miller urges exactly that, while also urging stronger public support for summer learning. For their part, Alexander et al suggest that the "punitive cast of NCLB may be misplaced," because the law fails to address the impact of summer learning (or a lack thereof). You can read Miller's report here; Alexander's is available for purchase here.