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To everything there is a season…except learning

What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy. – John Dewey (1900, p. 3)

I am by no means the best or wisest parent. However, lately, I find myself thinking about what we have been able to provide for my son before he even enrolls in kindergarten. He lives in a house full of books and other print reading material (the floor in his room is often invisible under a pool of books). He has his own laptop. We talk to him, lots. He talks to us, incessantly (I mean that in the best way; I think). Though he was eligible to begin kindergarten this fall (he turned 5 in June and the cutoff date in VA is October 1), we chose to enroll him in an amazing preschool for another year.

In other words, our son (and daughter, but she’s only one) is awash in social capital and cultural capital. We have provided him with a literacy-rich home environment and we have engaged in LOTS of what Hart & Risley (1995) call “extra talk.”

As a result, when he begins kindergarten in Fall 2011, he will be more than “ready.” In fact, I am confident that he will be much more “ready” than most other kids starting kindergarten at the same time as him. This phenomenon ( i.e. the contribution of home literacy environments or literacy-rich homes to differences in school readiness) is well documented, and I suspect well within the conscious mind of many educators (especially elementary educators). Kids show up to school with hugely different levels of “readiness,” and those differences relate strongly to subsequent educational outcomes.

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A lesser known phenomenon is the seasonality of student achievement. I live in the world of educational research and question a lot of what passes these days as “evidence” in education. However, there are a few studies that I point to regularly as of high quality and meaningful. One of those studies is written about in an article called¬†Schools, Achievement, and Inequality: A Seasonal Perspective by Alexander, Entwisle and Olson (2001).The authors used data from schoolchildren in Baltimore, where kids took achievement tests not just in the spring, but also in the fall. The figure below is a rough approximation of what they found with respect to reading achievement.

It is noteworthy that during the academic year (between fall and spring), all kids gained about the same. That is, the slopes of the lines between fall and spring are nearly identical across all three SES groups. It is during the summer months where the gains (or losses) are disparate across SES groups (i.e. the spring-to-fall slopes are significantly different).¬†“Lower SES youth start out behind (i.e. the baseline differences are significant) and during the school year they keep up, but during the summer periods their gains fall short of those registered by upper SES youth” (p. 182). As a result of starting behind and the “summer learning loss,” achievement gaps are exacerbated over time.

This is not to say that families and communities are the only holders of the keys to student learning. In fact, the Alexander, Entwisle & Olson study points to the extremely important compensatory role schools play.

Schools do matter, and they matter the most when support for academic learning outside school is weak. School-based public resources do not completely offset the many and varied advantages that accrue to children of privilege by virtue of private family resources outside of school (e.g. Coleman, 1990)…The powerful role of schools in fostering achievement of all children is one lesson informed by a seasonal perspective on learning.

One might even go so far as to suggest, based on this study, that, on the whole, schools do a reasonably good job of serving all children, not just those of wealthy families. That is, schools are not “failing.” Berliner and Biddle (1996) refer to this as The Manufactured Crisis.

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I don’t know if we qualify as mid- or high-SES, but I know we’re not low-SES. So, what does our son do over the summer? He goes to camps: nature camp, pottery camp, general day camp, etc. We travel over the summer, too. In other words, my son’s learning does not stop because school is not in session.

Thus, at the risk of sounding terribly elitist, I want for every child in our nation what my son has. For that to happen, we cannot and must not talk about school reform without talking about equality of opportunities for kids outside of K-12 classrooms. If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, we need to:

  1. Commit, first and foremost, to high-quality preschool for all kids.
  2. Consider policy efforts to improve the literacy richness of homes of children in low-income families.
  3. Think seriously about shifting to year-round schooling, especially in low-income communities (NOTE: I’m not necessarily talking about extending the school year beyond 180 days; rather, I’m talking about shifting away from school calendars based on the agrarian calendar).
  4. Make schools community centers that are open beyond the school day, where kids can regularly access media centers and computer labs.

So, while policy makers are arguing over labor matters and the intricacies of school governance, and while we’re all waiting for superman, my hope is that local communities commit themselves to providing meaningful learning opportunities for all children beyond what is provided during the traditional school day.

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