Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Biology Experiences in the Summer: Keeping the Faucet Flowing for All Students

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Biology Experiences in the Summer: Keeping the Faucet Flowing for All Students

Article excerpt

We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed for when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day. That calendar may have once made sense, but today it puts us at a competitive disadvantage ... Now, I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas. Not with Malia and Sasha--not in my family, and probably not in yours.

President Barack Obama, March 10, 2009

A recent TIME magazine cover story lamented the loss of "the romance of summer"--the idea that blissful, adventurous, playful summers are an important component of American childhood. Instead, they report, even if that once was true, summer for many children is now

a season of boredom, inactivity and isolation. Kids can't go exploring if their neighborhoods aren't safe. It's hard to play without toys or playgrounds or open spaces. And Tom Sawyer wasn't expected to care for his siblings while Aunt Polly worked for minimum wage. (Von Drehle, 2010: p. 37)

Furthermore, summer vacation is an important cause of the United States' lack of international competitiveness in educational achievement against countries whose students spend more days and more hours per day in school. Policymakers like President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan have sounded the call for longer school days and years as well as a serious rethinking of the academic calendar.

The uglier truth, however, is that the downside of summer vacation is not equally felt by all students. Scholars have documented the phenomenon they call "summer learning loss," in which all students learn while schools are in session, but students of lower socioeconomic status (SES) lose ground to their higher-SES counterparts during the summer months. Entwisle et al. (2001: p. 12) explain it this way:

   We think a "faucet theory" makes sense of
   these seasonal patterns. That is, when school
   was in session, the resource faucet was turned
   on for all children, and all gained equally;
   when school was not in session, the school
   resource faucet was turned off. In summers,
   poor families could not make up for the
   resources the school had been providing, and
   so their children's achievement reached a plateau
   or even fell back. Middle-class families
   could make up for the school's resources to a
   considerable extent so their children's growth
   continued, though at a slower pace.

Surprisingly, a substantial body of research (see Cooper et al., 1996, for a thorough review) argues that the majority of the achievement gap between urban and suburban schools is attributable to different achievement levels as students begin kindergarten and to summer learning loss. In other words, when schools are in session, all students learn about the same; summer widens the gap.

But what are teachers or schools to do about this problem? Decisions about whether to expand school days or school years are outside of teachers' domain. And let's face it, most teachers we know are understandably a lot like Malia and Sasha--less than crazy about losing summer vacations, which they use for professional development, long-term planning, and, of course, relaxation and rejuvenation. In this article, we describe our efforts with one urban high school to tackle summer learning loss through hands-on science in the summer. We describe the summer homework we created, our rationale for its design, its implementation, and parent and student reactions to it that suggest it accomplished its purposes.

* Designing the Assignment

We created a biology summer homework assignment by first recognizing that the students in our school (here called "Howard High") matched the demographic profile of those students most affected by summer learning loss; our students lived within an urban core and close to 70% qualified for federal free or reduced lunch support. …

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