A closer look at summer learning

Bobcat University instructor and Marshalltown Schools English Learning Coordinator Rachel Inks does a math lesson with three students at Lenihan Intermediate School.

The Bobcat University summer education program at Marshalltown Schools buildings is just one of several such programs around the state, and it is geared toward keeping kids academically engaged over the summer months.

Deborah Reed, director of the Iowa Reading Research Center, said such programs can have many benefits, but the benefits to students’ reading are not straightforward.

“The main problem is that most people refer to ‘summer learning loss’ or ‘summer slide’ or ‘summer setback,’ it goes by a variety of names,” she said. “It’s carried on in myth and it seems like that’s what should be happening because kids aren’t in school, but the reality is that the data that we’ve been analyzing do not support that idea.”

While some children come in from summer break a bit rusty from not having practiced their reading over the past few months, she said they didn’t “lose” any ability they learned. She said some children do not maintain their learning as well as others from school year to the next, and many students see no real change in the learning they retain, regardless of whether they attend a summer program.

“There is zero evidence to support the idea that kids are systematically losing knowledge over the summer,” she said.

Reed said Marshalltown Schools is part of a larger study of five school districts in the state to get more data on the effectiveness and benefits of summer education programs like Bobcat University. The other schools are in Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs, Davenport and Sioux City.

Clarissa Thompson of MICA said Bobcat University has many benefits for the hundreds of students who attend.

“We are offering students small group instruction, so one teacher to 11 students, and generally we’ll have a program assistant or student teacher, so generally you’ll get that ratio a little bit smaller,” she said. “They have an hour of math and an hour of reading in those small groups. It’s based on the school district’s curriculum, really taking the kids where they are and helping them continue to build their skills.”

One challenge, she said, is many students get tested on proficiency in the spring of one year, third grade for example, and then get tested again in the fall of the next year in fourth grade.

“The fourth grade test is different from the third grade test, and the expectations for student performance in fourth grade are different than the expectations for student performance in third grade,” Reed said.

However, she said she agrees that summer academic and reading programs are beneficial, even if students involved don’t test better on reading skills in the next school semester.

“Looking at reading outcomes is one way of saying whether or not the summer program is helpful, but there may be many other ways where keeping kids engaged in school and in learning in some form and fashion are helpful even if we can’t realize the outcomes in the actual reading score,” Reed said. “I hope that we can keep those ideas separate. It’s not the only reason we want kids to attend a summer reading program, just so we can show that at the end of the program, their reading scores went up.”

Bobcat University invites students based on their performance in certain academic areas, including being behind in their grade-level proficiency. Reed said such a four-week program usually isn’t enough for a student to catch up on proficiency.

“Asking them to improve in four weeks when they didn’t improve for the entire school year is a really big challenge and it may be setting the bar too high,” she said.

Thompson said the Bobcat University program, as well as that of its predecessor, Rogers University, were based on research from about nine years ago. She said the goal of the program is to increase student success.

“Ultimately, it’s about school success, so if we can keep kids on their trajectory of proficiency, gaining the skills that they need, they’re going to graduate high school and go on to further education and training,” Thompson said. “In the end, that benefits our community because we’re having a workforce of well-trained individuals.”

Reed said the results of the larger study on Marshalltown and other districts’ summer programs will be available in 2020, most likely in the fall.

“We have a great partnership with Marshalltown,” she said.

Reed reiterated she supports the district’s summer programming but on reading proficiency scores said, “The timeframe is just too short. It takes a long time to improve.”

Along with providing academic lessons, Bobcat University also provides enrichment activities for students, such as visits to local businesses or to recreational activities.


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