It’s tough to imagine filling a lazy beach day with fractions, or stretching out in the back seat on a road trip and practicing long division. For many of us, summer and mathematics just don’t seem to mix.
But across the socioeconomic spectrum, kids arrive back at school every fall much worse off in mathematics than they finished in the spring. On average, students lose approximately 2.6 months of learning in math over the summer — and teachers have to give up weeks of class time, or more, to make up for that loss.
The research is clear: Summer learning loss is a significant problem, playing a surprisingly large role in creating the achievement gap. Low-income kids can lose vast amounts of learning over the summer when they don’t have access to the same enriching activities as their higher-income peers, such as vacations, visits to museums and libraries, or even just time spent with family discussing academic concepts or everyday events. Schools and communities have tuned in to that challenge, finding more ways to partner with low-income families to ensure their children keep reading throughout the summer.
But it’s actually easier for kids — from all socioeconomic backgrounds — to forget what they learned in math over the summer than it is for them to lose reading skills.
The reason? Many parents — and their children — don’t think about math as existing outside of the classroom. “Parents often think that their kids learn math in school, and that it’s sort of the school’s domain,” says Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) doctoral student Kathleen Lynch. Many parents “may just be less inclined to do math at home,” she says.
“Reading activities are often part of the fabric of a family’s daily life,” says Joanna Christodoulou, an HGSE faculty member and an assistant professor at the MGH Institute of Health Professions. “But if you try to imagine a bedtime math routine, as you might for reading, the idea of winding down by completing math equations doesn’t elicit the same interest. The issue isn’t that engaging math activities are not available outside of school, but rather that it is easy to overlook the presence of math in everyday activities, like measurement in cooking, calculation when dealing with money, or distance while driving.”
As a result, when the school year ends, kids may have very few opportunities to engage in any type of mathematical thinking. It’s likely that most of the resulting loss involves procedures, not general concepts, the researchers say. An incoming fifth grader may retain the conceptual idea that division means separating things out into equal groups, but it’s easy for her to forget the set of steps to solving a long division problem.
But getting students to remember those procedures isn’t as easy as just assigning them summer math homework.
In a recent study, Lynch and summer learning expert James S. Kim, an associate professor at HGSE, examined the effects of a summer math intervention in which students were given access to an online math program and asked to do three “playlists,” or worksheets, a week. While the majority of students did use the program, their math scores showed no improvement at the end of the summer. So just assigning worksheets without mentoring or guidance, Lynch concludes, probably won’t correct summer math loss. Families will need to adopt a more integrated approach.
To understand what specific interventions and home supports would alleviate summer math loss, more research is needed. But here are four fun ways for parents to help their children practice math skills over the summer, based on work by Christodoulou, Lynch, and HGSE’s master teacher in mathematics, Noah Heller.
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Noah Heller is lecturer on education and a master teacher in residence in mathematics for the Harvard Teacher Fellows (HTF) Program. His past research focused on ninth-grade students identification with mathematics in regard to how they see themselves as math persons.
Jimmy Kim uses randomized experiments to evaluate and improve literacy interventions and inform education policy. He leads the Project for Scaling Effective Literacy Reforms, a collaborative initiative to identify and scale adaptive strategies to improve childrens literacy learning opportunities.