The recent New York Times Sunday Dialogue about extending school through summer caught our attention. Meg Stewart, the author of the original letter, and a number of readers wrote thoughtful reflections for and against the idea, covering points ranging from the needs of working parents, curriculum enrichment, logistical and political obstacles, loss of unstructured childhood and valuable non-school activities, and the inconvenience for teachers, to sleep deficits and disagreement on the origins of the summer vacation.
But in our view, there was one huge issue that was largely missing from the discussion: equity for students in low-income communities of color, who are so deplorably underserved by our present public education system.
Affluent and middle-class families use their own resources to fill their children’s afternoons, summers, and vacations with private academic tutoring, music and art lessons, science camp, and sports activities. Parents know – and research proves – that these activities aren’t “extra.” They are essential to round out their children’s education and prepare them for college and successful careers. But many parents can’t afford these extra classes and care – and they are often the same parents who work longer hours, including those crucial afterschool and school vacation hours. Also, due to the built-in inequities of America’s public school system, children from these lower-income families are more likely to attend schools that have less-qualified teachers, fewer textbooks, more-limited science, arts, and sports, and unsafe schools and neighborhoods. So, while summer actually leads to learning gains for affluent and middle-class children attending programs that provide rich learning experiences, summer results in learning loss for the children in families without the extra means.
In addition to the advantage middle-class and privileged children gain outside of school, their parents also enhance resources in the school. They often fund teaching aides, arts teachers, computer and language labs, school libraries, music programs, field trips, and other activities that were slashed by district budgets. The public schools in Northwest Washington, DC, are a prime example of supplemental resources provided by parents. So, too, are urban charter schools in which parents and institutional patrons – business and higher education, along with local and national foundations – contribute significant resources.
If we don't address this growing divide across the nation, we continue to deny opportunities to many of our children based on conditions beyond their control. Speaking from two decades of research and technical assistance in urban communities across the U.S., our organization, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, holds that any expansion of learning time must be comprehensive across a school and school system: all students attending all schools must be included in the kinds of expanded learning activities that are often reserved for “gifted” students. It is also important to remember that the goal of expanded learning time should be to create rich, high-quality, personalized educational pathways for all students, especially in low-income communities of color – not simply to bump up test scores a couple of points. We will know the reforms are succeeding when students in the nation’s lowest-performing schools are growing academically, physically, and psychologically and meet ambitious educational and career goals.
Annenberg Institute Resources:
The Next Four Years: Recommendations for Federal Education Policy, Voices in Urban Education 36 (2013)
Extending Learning, Voices in Urban Educaton 12 (2007)
Former AISR Principal Associate/Clinical Assistant Professor