Summertime and the student learning loss is easy… Part 1

Growing up in Brooklyn NY, I was always suspicious of a saying I often heard: “What you don’t know won’t hurt you!” (And who started that anyway?) I did not believe that saying because I spent too much time at the Brooklyn: Public Library, Museum, Botanical Gardens, Children’s Museum, Prospect park, Zoo; along with my gifted middle school program experience, that exposed us to so many of the cities rich cultural institutions; and not to mention our daily reading of the NY Times in social studies. I truly believed that not knowing was a self-caused fatal deficiency! “Knowing”, seemed to offer an advantage in life; “knowing” causes one to interact with a sense of confidence and power in the world, an attitude not enjoyed by the uninitiated “not knowing” citizenry. This concept of the: Power of Knowing and wanting to know, that I adopted as a young child; and how the knowing, information enriched folks exercised power; while the lacking in knowledge poor folks; those with less of, or not wanting to know attitudes; lived a life of powerlessness at the mercy of the powerful. This idea, has remained one of the cornerstones of my educational philosophy, to this day.

Well summer learning loss, is a situation where: What a parent does not know will definitely hurt their child! Another suspicion I have is how the “achievement gap” is framed and explained. The common working definition wrongly suggest a “running race” model, where there is some fair and equal academic achievement starting line for White affluent-entitled kids, and the Black, Latino and poor kids of any color; and then the “smarter” White affluent-entitled kids academically out-sprint everybody else.

The truth is that the race is rigged; the winners and losers are determined before the race begins; the starting points are not now, or have ever been equal. Meanwhile, during the course of this “academic achievement race”, hurdles are placed in the running lanes of the disenfranchised children. Imagine an Olympic or any sporting event where the outcome was determined before the start of the event? Where one team or athlete had an open unfair advantage. Would fans lose interest, I think so; after all a chief marketing theme of the NFL is: “On any given Sunday, any team can win!” But not in education, the game is fixed, so that on any given school day, only one team always wins!

What we don’t tell parents…

All professions have: hidden, obscure, secrets, rules, information-knowledge; and develops a confusing (to the lay person) vocabulary and language. One reason for these essential qualities is that they allow the professional to ask for compensation (money) for their services. But this idea can at times go terribly wrong; as it often does in the education profession where there are large numbers of parents who don’t know how the real rules of: “Parent Engagement” work. Now much of this not knowing is “professionally contrived and created”, on purpose, as parents are cynically mislead into thinking that “parent power” is doing things like serving on a school budget committee; or, serving on a school personnel committee, and “picking” a teacher or a principal. With all of these “parent involvement” activities, school systems nationally and rationally, have a built in “veto mechanism” that can nullify any parent “decision”! Now, the reason school districts do “parent involvement” in this way is because it makes parents feel good, and it keeps them quiet. Parent “quietness” is a highly sought after goal in public education!

The truth we don’t tell parents (well, some of us don’t tell); is that the most important objective of this entire K-12 exercise, is that your child emerges at the end of the process as an academically-socially-morally- emotionally-empowered, successful human being. And that the real and most effective Parent Engagement activities, those parental involvement activities that are essential to realizing student success; does not involve the parent serving on committees, selling cookies and candy, or “managing” the school; rather it is the parent effectively managing the out of school, and in school behaviors, habits, attitudes and practices toward learning, of their child!

Some parents in this nation have essentially raised this “awareness” to an art-science; and thus the tremendous academic success of their children. For 11 years as an urban high school principal, there were some parents who never ventured to tell me how to run the school. Their only question: “What do you need me to do to make my child successful?” And: “What do you need my child to do to be successful?” (“And I will make sure that they do it!”) All of those students “over-performed”. On the other hand I have had the parents of failing, underachieving, and terribly underperforming students; state nicely, and very often not so nicely, that I did not know what I was doing! Their children, often picking up their “cues” of disrespect from the parent, always under-performed. How many parent-teacher-principal meetings have I held where the parent can’t resist telling either the teacher or me; in front of the child, that we don’t know what we are doing. Why would the child listen to us after hearing that? The second most important parent involvement activity is for the parent to manage the informal educational program experience, such that it compliments and enriches the formal education program.

Divided yet codependent learning activities…

To break down the very complex “child learning” process, into two general categories. There is formal learning, which takes place at school; and then there is informal learning that includes places like public libraries, aquariums, museums, nature walks, stamp collecting, theater, scouting, dance, music, art lessons, STEM camps, creative writing, educational games & toys, chess playing, and reading for fun, etc. Now my Deweyian (John Dewey) instincts causes me to have a problem with the division between these two modes of learning; but that is a discussion for another day. It is enough to say that a child’s learning does not end when they exit the school building. It is also important to note that these two learning systems are inseparable; however they are only formally measured (tested) in the formal school system! In fact, the Pre-K or K-3 “gifted and talented” admissions exams/process, is almost always a test of the level of the parent’s level of education, and their informal education management skills. The AP, ACT & SAT are very much measurements of the culmination of informal education learning (including informal-formal test-taking skills training), plus the amount and quality of formal education learning. And those students who have “chosen” parents who understand these concepts, will most likely excel in the public education system. This is combined with doing other things like being able to effectively, and successfully advocate/navigate their child through the system by finding schools where high expectation and expertise are the organizational standards; and even negotiating the child’s admission to a particular teacher’s class inside of a school! (As a superintendent I have had parents show up at my office, to get their child’s class changed, if the principal did not comply with their wishes! After following up those meetings by first observing the class; and not being happy with what I saw; I often wondered: “Why the heck are the other class parents not staging a similar “sit-in” in my office?)

I never had a “free” summer…

As a young child I was on a summer “learning program” of so many hours of reading, academic workbooks my mother purchased, the YMCA’s culture-sports-arts day camp, my merit badge activities, the library, museums, my model train system in the basement, my stamp collection, my magazines: “Life & National Geographic”, my world war 2: model planes and ships, my science work: Ant farm, microscope/science kit during the day, and my telescope on the roof after dark, Police Athletic League, church activities and programs, summer academic enrichment program at P.S. 9, which included educational/cultural institutions trips and art activities, in middle school I had my summer saxophone lessons, a photography class, Overnight Boy Scout camping, trips to an upstate summer camp, a scholarship to a summer drama class, etc. In short I did not have a summer experience where I was just in the street playing, or in the house watching TV. At the same time, I don’t ever remember not enjoying my summer vacations.

Parents must organize their child’s summer learning experiences; and that includes pushing back against the protest of your child (they will thank you later!), and other adults, who neither understand anything about learning in general, nor about the power of informal education. Parents should also know that the effective “pushy parents”; may not feel obligated to share either the need for informal educational activities for your child, or where those activities exist. And so parents need to do their own local search for low cost or free summer learning experience activities. And even if they cost something, the investment is well worth it! I am amazed at the huge number of these programs for which many parents are unaware even exist. Every one with a phone has access to a search engine. Google or call your local-state government, universities, elected officials, cultural institutions, newspapers, school district, local library, private and community based organization for information on summer informal learning programs.

Your child’s school should provide a summer (informal education) resource learning guide for you, and/or a summer work/study packet for your child.
But if your child’s school does not distribute a summer study/learning package, contact the central district superintendent’s office, and request a grade appropriate packet from another school in the district that does provide these packets (This will also let you know what children in your child’s grade are learning at other schools!) Meanwhile a daily quiet reading for fun schedule, along with some time with the free mathematics learning tutorial programs ( or learning games online; can do a great deal to stop the summer loss syndrome. Over a K-8 time period the child can lose up to two years of cumulative learning; placing them at a terrible disadvantage when entering high school. I will from time to time post some resources for summer learning programs, but a good start is:

National Summer Learning Association…

In part 2 I want to specifically focus on high school students; and how they can use the summer, (due to their “independent” movement ability), as a period of promise for present and future empowerment.