One of the quickest discoveries you make as an education reporter — or teacher, principal or superintendent, for that matter — is how much poverty matters. It dramatically drags down test scores, graduation rates, reading levels and college admissions.
The education system is supposed to be the accelerant for the American Dream, the rocket fuel of income mobility, but, as heaps of research show, poor kids still have trouble making to off the ground.
I’ve focused a lot on the impact of poverty during the school year — why it’s so hard to pass your spelling test when you don’t have help from parents with homework or a stable place to sleep at night or food in the cupboards.
But one of the biggest factors may not be during the school year at all. Summertime, it turns out, is deadly for education.
Check out this video, narrated by Brian Williams of NBC news.
Speaking generally, kids in a middle class and upper class homes can continue learning during the summer. They’re surrounded by books, peppered by intellectual discussion questions over dinner, and sent off to drama camps, space camps and math camps. That’s often not the case for children living in poverty. They slide backward.
So each summer, the achievement gap gets bigger and bigger. Rogers High School principal Lori Wyborney has raised that as an issue, suggesting low-income schools like Rogers could benefit from a reformed school year with much smaller gaps.
State Sen. Andy Billig (D-Spokane) has been thinking about the Summer Brain Drain problem a long time, ever since daughter was in second grade. At the end of that school year, he met with his daughter's teacher and her teacher told him that, come September, her reading level would be lower.
For a moment, that didn’t make any sense. Why might his daughter’s reading level be lower at the end of the summer? Then he began to understand.
“Summer learning loss is the driving factor for the opportunity gap,” Billig says. “Johns Hopkins found that two-thirds of the opportunity gap was caused by the summer reading gap.”
His proposal: End summer vacation early.
He’s proposing a bill to pay for an experiment that would start school at the beginning of August for a select 10 schools across the state. “School starts on August 1st,” Billig says. "You’ll have breakfast, lunch, the school nurse, the school counselors. It is not summer school, it is school.”
This would not only cut short summer, it would give teachers 20 more days of class time. The Washington Public Policy Institute would compare the success of those schools against conventional schools.
If it works, the idea could be expanded to select schools throughout the state.
“I don’t ever see this being something we’ll do in every school,” Billig says. “If the pilot is successful, I would say this could be a tool we’d use in certain high poverty schools in districts.”
The challenge, of course, is the cost. Washington state, according to the state supreme court, is already failing its “paramount duty” of funding basic education. Expanding a school by a full month — including teachers, custodians, administrators, buses and central heating — would mean an incredible expense.
“I’ve talked to a lot of legislators and nobody would be opposed to the policy,” Billig says. “The only sticking point will be costs.”
Billig says he hasn’t seen the fiscal note for the cost of the 10-school pilot. But he says that if the cost is too much, the state might be able to test the idea with only, say, four or five schools. Either way, he says, the state stands to learn a valuable lesson.
“On average, if you’re a middle-income kid, on average our schools will deliver for you,” Billig says. “[But] we’re having trouble closing the opportunity gap.”