My Manifesto Against ‘Summer Slide’

Last week I heard yet another radio advertisement for a program that promised to help children combat “summer slide.” I switched off the radio. The term “summer slide” drives me crazy.

Why? Because while a phenomenon known as “summer slide” is something researchers at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere have established has real consequence, the way I hear it used is nothing short of fear mongering. These sorts of terms set parents up for two choices: A, you part with your money or B, you part with your money AND your sanity. The message is clear: Sign your kid up for our program! You better be doing a bunch of academics with your children all summer! Or else your kid is going to be a failure! And you are by extension a failure of a parent!

From a Forbes article:

“There is actually a condition affecting school children called the ‘summer slide,’ which the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) describes as, a term that suggests a playful amusement park attraction but actually describes a grim reality. The phenomenon was studied extensively by Johns Hopkins University researchers… [in 2007 and their] longitudinal study tracked Baltimore students from 1st grade through age 22… The researchers concluded that two-thirds of the 9th grade reading achievement gap can be explained by [lack of] access to summer learning opportunities during elementary school.”

The fact is, though, that while I find the term offensive I’m empathetic to slide of any kind. I’ve experienced it myself. I took eight years of Spanish from high school through college. I even spent the summer in Spain after my freshman year. And, yet, because I don’t use my Spanish all the time, I’m really, really rusty. Like so rusty that I must use Google Translate to decipher ads in the Spanish version of People magazine. Slide isn’t fun. It mocks us. It makes us question if we ever really, truly learned.

My neighbor C., whom I consider a model parent, spent last summer working with her 7-year-old daughter on reading, writing and other academic skills. It was a pretty big struggle, but C. likened it to getting her daughter to brush her teeth or eat vegetables. Just something a parent needs to do for the good of the child. “It’s so competitive in school. And, while in my heart I don’t think kids should have to do schoolwork during the summer, I know that my daughter will not feel good if she’s not doing extremely well,” C. said.

Academic success really matters to her child. C. also wanted her daughter to return to school feeling good about herself. So, C. strengthened her daughter’s academics to strengthen her self esteem. That makes lots of sense.

I take a different approach. I remind myself that researchers use the term “summer slide” to mainly highlight the idea that kids suffer when they don’t have access to summer learning opportunities–via on-the-ball caregivers or camp programs. This doesn’t mean kids must be drilled or enrolled in a special academic summer program, so I ease my guilt reminding myself that learning opportunities come in many forms. Both of my kids attended science camps, which we selected because they’re fun–not just educational. And, yet, I can’t deny that they’re also educational.

Yesterday I drove my son about 40 minutes away to visit one of his new friends from science camp. It was the first time I met her mother and as we walked across the yard toward her, a lawnmower started up next door. Over the din, she asked me a question. And I could’ve sworn it was in Spanish. I panicked for a nanosecond and then blurted out an answer. In Spanish. As we got closer she squinted at me and said, “I’m sorry? What was that? What did you say your name was?”

My family thinks this is hysterical. But, secretly, I’m congratulating myself. Maybe I have other problems since I’m mis-hearing English as Spanish. But the experience reminds me that yes, I have slid, but I haven’t completely wiped out. For me, it’s okay if my kids also experience the misery and frustration of knowing that they’re rusty on something they once thought they had down. Especially if they also understand that it’s likely not a lost cause. With a little effort, they’ll rebound.

Trust me, that’s a worthwhile life lesson.

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Victoria Clayton

Victoria Clayton

Victoria loves research, reading, writing and talking to people. Her biggest asset as a writer is insatiable curiosity. She’s worked as a columnist covering parenting, health and education for and many other publications. She’s currently an education contributor to Victoria’s essays have been published in The Midwest Review and Barrelhouse literary magazines. Her husband and she have two sons, ages 13 and 6. Victoria is a part-time college professor (after being a first-gen college student) and has been a parent volunteer at a traditional public elementary school in their far-flung suburb of Los Angeles as well as in a charter school devoted to whole child and social/emotional-centered education. Besides reading and writing, she's obsessed with yoga, meditation, making homemade Oreos (“Victoreos”) and Isaac, the family's 8-pound Chihuahua mix. She still believes, despite what some critics say, that education is the most powerful force we have against ignorance, violence and despair. Find her on Twitter @vicclay.

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