Third Semester: A Point of Privilege

Third Semester: A Point of Privilege
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This June 2015 photo provided by Perry-Mansfield shows a musical theatre and songwriting class for middle school students with Rob Schiffmann, center left, in Steamboat Springs, Colo. Summer theater camps are as numerous as Shakespeare's soliloquies.  (Perry-Mansfield via AP)

RCEd Commentary

I am lucky to be privileged. I plan my daughter’s summer weeks like a brilliant, patchwork quilt. She gets several weeks of summer camp, some interesting travel with family and friends, a big chunk of days horseback riding at her favorite stable and a week at the beach.

Throughout these experiences, she is being stimulated and enriched. Her horizons are being broadened. She is making new friends, learning from experts, and exploring new places. She is learning all the time, not school learning, but real and valuable learning nonetheless. From this learning and these experiences, she derives an undeniable advantage over her less fortunate peers. That’s not why we do it, but that’s the result.

There is now an ample body of research that documents statistically significant gains in learning for affluent students with access to quality learning experiences and, by contrast, shows learning declines in those who, by the accident of birth, have no such access.

Let’s take a hypothetical peer of my daughter who, like her, attends a large urban school system. Let’s imagine this child as a sixth-grader. In contrast to my daughter, this child’s summer is bleak. He is an only child with a single mother who has to work two jobs but still does not have the means to pay for an enriching program for him. She’s apprehensive about her son being out in the neighborhood, which she regards as unsafe, so she insists that her son stay in their apartment all day while she is at work. He watches television and hangs out with a cousin who drops by for a couple of hours in the afternoon. That’s it.

In the face of contrasts like these, palpable opportunity gaps, disparities that repeat and compound annually over a child’s 13-year, K-12 school experience, is it any surprise that we see persistent gaps in learning between the affluent and disadvantaged?  Remember, school, as we know it, occupies only 20 percent of a child’s waking hours in the K-12 years. On average, this is too weak an intervention to close persistent achievement gaps, so we must turn to closing opportunity gaps, the gaps in access to learning experiences. Even if regular schools provide the same high quality education for everyone irrespective of socio-economic status, they can rarely compensate for the continuing disparities in access to out of school learning, especially summer learning, the third semester.

This is another facet of how inequality shows up for children. Affluent parents spend dramatically more on out-of-school learning than disadvantaged parents. Consequently, children from low-income families spend 6,000 fewer hours learning by sixth grade. Unequal access to summer learning has been shown to account for over half of the achievement gap by ninth grade.

Every child needs a stimulating third semester, yet currently we only assume public responsibility for two semesters of learning during the normal school year. We leave the third to chance, but by doing so, we deepen the very opportunity and achievement gaps we profess we want to eradicate.

We used to regard this third semester as incidental. Whether you had access to high quality summer experiences was regarded as “luck of the draw” and largely irrelevant to one’s educational prospects. Now, we know better, and we can document the advantages of summer learning with data. We can observe a variety of cost-effective, evidence-based models.

New research from RAND, for example, shows that voluntary large-scale programs in Boston and four other cities equip low-income fourth graders with a significant advantage in mathNumerous other studies document summer learning losses for those who lack access to enrichment and gains for those who have such opportunities.

Making the case for public support to ensure that all children have access to high-quality, summer learning opportunities will require that we reconceive of our public responsibility, as states and as local communities, to assume that a third semester isn’t something “nice to do” but rather something essential to preparing all of our students for success in college and career. If we fail to do so, we must then resign ourselves to perpetual achievement gaps and failure to compete globally, despite our best efforts at school reform.

Many cities and school systems around the country, especially Boston, are making concerted efforts to boost access to summer learning for disadvantaged children. And it’s popular with taxpayers of all kinds. A recent survey shows that 84 percent of parents nationally favor funding for afterschool opportunities in communities that have few opportunities for children and youth.

Finally, the third semester presents a great opportunity for educators to experiment more deeply with just the kind of hands-on, engaging experiential learning that students are seeking these days. Likewise, summer learning can reinforce the kind of social-emotional skills that employers demand, interpersonal learning that enables students to work more effectively with one another in teams and on tasks. For a long time, parents have intuitively known the value of an enriching third semester, now the data supports their intuition. It’s time for state and local policy-makers across the United States to climb on board and make sure that the third semester isn’t just an accident of birth but an essential part of every child’s yearly educational experience.

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