Learning is more than retaining information—how mentors make the difference

Two-thirds of the achievement gap for American children is due to the "summer learning loss". Here's how we fix that.

Karim Abouelnaga: The summer learning loss is a term that they use to describe the regressions that kids in low-income neighborhoods face relative to their affluent peers. So they say in lower income neighborhoods kids forget anywhere from two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half months of what they learned during the school year over the summer, while their middle-class peers break even or even make gains.

When I first learned about the achievement gap I was a freshman in college and I wanted to understand what the causes of it were. And as I started to do my research I realized that there were a thousand different reasons why the achievement gap existed: everything from a lack of positive role models to poor health conditions in so many of these inner-city and low-income neighborhoods.

And then I found this startling statistic that said that two-thirds of the achievement gap could be directly attributed to unequal summer learning opportunities, or the summer learning loss. In low-income neighborhoods, kids forget anywhere from two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half months of what they learn over the summer from the school year, and so when they return to school they’re now two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half months behind their affluent or their middle class peers.

Just to put that in perspective for you all: the school year from September to June is only ten months long. If a kid forgets two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half months of what they learned, that’s almost 25 to 35 percent of their learning. Teachers have then reported that they spend anywhere from a month-and-a-half to two months reteaching old material. So if you add that additional 20 percent you’re talking about 50 percent of a kid’s learning.

So we sit here and we ask ourselves, “Why does an eighth grader only have a fourth grade reading level?” and the truth of the matter is that theoretically speaking they’ve only been in school for half the time.

When I first learned about the summer learning loss I thought the obvious solution was summer school, right? If kids were in school over the summer then they couldn’t be regressing, they couldn’t forget what they were learning. And then I learned really quickly that summer school sucked; it was punishment for the kids and babysitting for the teachers. And I thought back to my own days when I was in summer school, and I didn’t like it—and no one does. There’s such a negative stigma associated with it.

When I was 18 I actually brought together a group of friends to start to alleviate some of the issues around summer schooling in general. I didn’t think learning had to be boring and so we started to think about how we could rebrand school and make school more fun. Specifically, we thought about what we wanted from school over the summer when we were kids.
So we created a multigenerational near-peer learning model that has sort of changed the way we interact with students and children to change their learning over the course of the summer. So we recruit and we hire near-peer mentors, kids who are just a few years older than the kids who we’re working with, to give them a positive role model in their neighborhood.

I used to think back to when I was a child. I didn’t do bad things because I wanted to be a bad kid—I did it because the older kids were doing it. So many times the older kids are the ones who are perceived as being cool, and kids are just looking for an opportunity to be cool and fit in.
We then paired them up with college students who are aspiring educators, giving the near-peer mentors a new role model to look up to. I remember for me it wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I built a relationship with a college-age student. No one in my family had gone to college before, and so as you can imagine my college aspirations were stunted or limited because of that.

And then obviously for our college students—they’re looking for some meaningful professional development and growth as well, and so we hire teachers from the schools that we work with who can act as role models and mentors to our college students who one day want to be in the classroom and fill their shoes.

And so this model where everyone is sort of a participant but also a beneficiary creates this win-win-win situation for everyone, making summer school a lot more fun and exciting. When we first started our work it was very structured. We sort of said: this is what a six week program looks like in a low-income neighborhood or community.

We quickly realized that no two schools are the same, and it’s funny—we’re primarily based in New York City and as you think about like schools and school districts in that area there’s about 1.1 million kids and there’s 1,700 schools.

And so schools are co-located within the same building. And so schools are oftentimes serving the same exact population of kids with the same per-pupil spend or the same amount of funding, yet they have very different cultures, and they lead to very different outcomes.
And so one approach in one school may not work as an approach at a very different school. So I think one: we need to stay away from these overarching generalizations about “what’s good for one is good for all”, because that’s no longer the case.

As it relates to summer specifically I don’t think we need to get rid of the summer gap. I think there’s an opportunity to do something meaningful and different. I always think back to our own programs and what we do and I recognize that, if we didn’t come in there with a completely different approach to learning over the summer, that learning or extending the school year in that case actually may not make that much of a difference. You may not have regressions but that doesn’t mean you’re going to improve student engagement or help kids catch up.
And so I think the summertime is also an opportunity to help kids catch up to their other peers who may have retained everything that they needed to learn for the school year and probably won’t have a hard time continuing to be independent learners.

We know the status in so many of our low-income neighborhoods, where they’re being raised in single parent households or immigrant households—like in my own household, my mother not once picked up a book and said, “Hey, you should be reading this book, because it’s grade-level appropriate” or “Challenge yourself by doing this.” And I think some of it is that just she just didn’t know.

And so being conscious of the fact that there are certain disadvantages that kids of color or minorities exhibit or deal with—things that their more affluent peers just sort of don’t have to face—does create an opportunity for them over the summer.

I don’t think the solution is to close the summer gap all together. But I do think there are opportunities to maybe narrow it a slight bit. I know there are some states and some cities that have summer breaks that are as long as 14 weeks, which is way too long. I think a meaningful summer break is six to seven weeks. Even with our programs, our interventions now are anywhere from four to six weeks long and kids still have three to four weeks off.

Is America's achievement gap crisis caused by long summer vacations? "In lower income neighborhoods, kids forget anywhere from two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half months of what they learned during the school year over the summer, while their middle-class peers break even or even make gains," says Karim Abouelnaga, CEO of Practice Makes Perfect. This startling statistic is why he started a different kind of summer school, one based on a chain of near-peer mentors, where kids are connected with college students and college students are connected with teaching professionals. "This model, where everyone is sort of a participant but also a beneficiary, creates this win-win-win situation for everyone, making summer school a lot more fun and exciting." Why do some eighth grader students only have a fourth grade reading level? Theoretically speaking, they’ve only been in school for half the time, says Abouelnaga. To find out more, visit practicemakesperfect.org.


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Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

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