When the end of the school year arrives, internet articles and morning talk shows sound the annual alarm about preventing holiday learning loss. They advise parents to purchase hot new reads for their children, take them to museums, and sign them up for science camp.
As a literacy educator for the past 27 years – and the parent of two teenagers – I’ve tried many of these recommendations myself. (Ask my son about the library reading programmes I signed him up for, and wait for the groan.) I understand why such tips are appealing. Who doesn’t want young people to spend their holidays more productively than sleeping and playing Fortnite? But it’s high time we question the assumptions baked into our thinking.
Let me tell you why.
The holiday slide is real, but …
It’s hard to blame parents for anxiety about learning loss given a century’s worth of research that shows young people can lose up to several months’ worth of school-year learning over break. Studies also show older students have greater gaps than younger students, and learning loss is greatest for low-income students. These findings are worrisome.
At the same time, it’s important to recognise that concerns about learning loss are grounded in an idea that learning is linear and that students’ gains or losses are best measured by performance on achievement tests. Any gaps these tests reveal need to be considered with caution.
The loss-prevention recommendations themselves also reflect some problematic biases. Parents and caregivers from all walks of life find ways to support their children’s growth and development. But many ideas suggested for stemming learning loss assume an audience with disposable income, employment flexibility and English fluency that not all families have.
For example, tracing shadows every two hours from breakfast to dinner is easier for a parent with the means to stay home than a working parent. Suggesting that families who can’t afford educational camps create their own using online resources ignores variation in parental education, literacy levels and technology access. Such disregard of social class differences is particularly concerning since many learning-loss articles are thinly veiled advertisements for commercial products and programmes.
Also troubling is the assumption that families, not educators, should promote learning in specialised areas such as mathematics, reading and science. Although families from all walks of life promote varied kinds of learning in everyday life, most parents lack preparation to address academic subjects, and their year-round obligations don’t end just because school is out for their offspring.
Holiday gains for all
Given these complexities, I believe that solutions to the learning loss should not fall predominantly on students and their families. Instead, schools must step up to design holiday-learning supports responsive to community needs. These might be home-based initiatives, such as the one created by Richard Allington and colleagues, where students’ selection and ownership of 12 free books yielded small but significant gains in reading, particularly for students from the least-advantaged families.
Schools might also offer no- or low-cost programmes on site that combine interest-driven academics with a mix of enrichment activities such as dance, drama, or meditation. Holiday school can be much more than the retaking of failed courses.
Research suggests parents would take advantage of these programmes if they were offered. The National Summer Learning Association found that 51% of families not participating in a holiday programme would do so if one were available.
I have seen first-hand what can happen when holidays are viewed as a time to test innovations that promote learning for all, teachers and students alike, rather than an opportunity to “fix” some children stereotyped as deficient.
For four years, I served as director of a holiday writing institute meant to ease primary school pupils’ transition to high school. The three-week programme was free, open to all students slated to attend a local high school in the fall, and drew its staff from volunteers committed to continuous professional improvement. Students pursued individual and collaborative projects in both print and digital forms. Guest authors from the community spoke about how and why they write. Teachers worked together to construct plans responsive to students’ varying needs.
My research within the institute suggests that students valued interacting with peers from diverse backgrounds and abilities around topics of interest. It also suggests that families valued a high-quality learning experience for their children that didn’t duplicate the school curriculum, take the entire holiday or require extra effort from them. Teachers valued collaborating with peers to design a strengths-based writing programme tailored to the local community.
To be sure, programnes like the writing institute require considerably more time and money than sending home a one-page menu of suggestions for families. But if such programmes engage students without stigmatising them and help teachers refine their craft, that investment could be well worth it.