When a new season of The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones starts, most viewers haven’t thought about the show in months. That can be a problem: These big, twisty TV dramas don’t make any sense out of context. If you don’t remember who killed whom during the last season finale, then the premiere will be pure nonsense. And so, a few days before the season airs, networks will usually release a recap. They want the details fresh in your mind, because if you don’t remember what’s already happened, you won’t understand what happens next.
Math is the same way. Unfortunately, as kids head back to math class after summer vacation, HBO won’t remind them what they did the year before.
The summer slide—not as fun as it sounds
We call the sharp decline in math skill from one year to the next “the summer slide,” and it’s more than just kids being rusty or restless. A 1996 study in the Review of Educational Research showed that students lose 2.6 months’ worth of math instruction over the summer each year. This means that, at the end of the break, it will be as if your child had skipped every single math class from September 1st to Thanksgiving, and they will do the same thing, year after year, until they graduate.
This is bad, and not just in the short term. Math, like a long-running TV show, builds on itself, and losing core skills can have a lasting impact. A student can safely forget the details of a novel she read in fourth grade, but if she doesn’t remember how to do division, that’s going to be an issue. This may explain why the effects of the summer slide accumulate: the achievement gap between high- and low-income students widens every year, and a study by Johns Hopkins University found that the slide could account for two-thirds of that gap. Summer learning loss isn’t just a problem for your child’s next school year. It’s a problem for their whole life.
How to keep from slipping
Here’s the good news: The slide can be stopped, or at least minimized. The RAND Corporation has researched summer school best practices, and they’ve found that experienced teachers offering individual attention can improve students’ math scores in the fall and beyond. The Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), meanwhile, argues that students tend to think math only exists in the classroom, so it will be harder for them to forget what they’ve learned if they start to see the abundance of math in the world around them, be it a game of Monopoly or a task like measuring ingredients.
And so, as an instructor at Mathnasium, I’m going to point out that our program offers all these solutions, and that we continue to offer them throughout the summer months. We have individualized learning plans for each student that will help them get ahead and shore up skills they’ve forgotten over the past summers. And our focus on number sense instead of rote memorization will make kids notice math everywhere they go.
So please, head over to our website at mathnasium.com. We’d be thrilled to help your child fight the summer slide. But if a tutoring center is outside your budget, check out the National Summer Learning Association at summerlearning.org, because the slide is real, and the slide is scary, and no child deserves to have their future jeopardized by it.
I’ve compared math to a TV drama, and I think it’s an apt comparison. Both build on existing knowledge. Both are easy to forget in the off-seasons. Both can be confusing when you’re thrown back into them. But there’s one key difference: If I’m watching The Walking Dead and don’t really understand what’s happening in front of me, that’s fine.
If a student feels the same way in a math class, it’s not.
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