While New Mexico’s children were out of school for summer vacation, some of them were forgetting what they learned last year. When they return to school, they will be further behind their peers.
The children who lose ground, the studies say, are those who can least afford to slip behind. They are the children who are already disadvantaged – identified by poverty and affected by the social ills poverty so often creates. They may lose as much as three months’ worth of learning over the summer.
Think of it this way: middle class children with educated parents get twice as much education as disadvantaged children. They are exposed to learning at home, from their families and their environment. They see books, magazines and computers. Their parents talk to them, expanding their vocabulary.
One in-depth study recorded thousands of hours of conversation between parents and their children and counted words. The study found upper income families used 2,153 words every hour; middle income families used 1,251 words; and welfare-recipient families used just 616. An upper income child at age 4 has been exposed to 30 million more words than a disadvantaged child.
(Studies cited in this article are documented in the book “I Got Schooled,” by M. Night Shyamalan, which cites and analyzes numerous studies of public education.)
Lack of opportunity during the summer is half the story for disadvantaged children. The other half is what’s happening while they’re not in school.
According to Shyamalan, disadvantaged children (often defined as those who qualify for free or reduced price lunch) have – to varying degrees – insecure and perhaps chaotic home lives, and that affects their learning.
A kindergarten teacher friend described it this way: some of these kids have a parent in prison, or they’re living with a grandparent, or they’re moving all the time and don’t know from day to day where they will sleep. She sees this all year in a New Mexico classroom.
The studies Shyamalan has reviewed say longer school days and longer school years are especially needed by children whose lives outside school are insecure and unpredictable.
New Mexico has been grappling with the limitations of its education system for decades. We all know the controversy about whether third graders who can’t read should be forced to repeat a grade. Aside from that, several efforts are focused on children in those early grades.
The statewide K-3 Plus program adds 25 days to the school year for some schools in kindergarten through third grade. It is targeted toward high-poverty schools and has about $7 million in funding this year. This summer’s program in your districts is probably already completed.
New Mexico Reads to Lead is for teachers in these early grades, with about $15 million this year, also targeted to specific schools in each district. The program trains reading coaches who in turn provide training and extra resources to teachers so they can be more effective in teaching reading.
At a recent meeting of the interim Legislative Education Study Committee, several districts reported good progress with Reads to Lead but said they were not able to recruit enough reading coaches.
Many more students, ages 1 to 18, have been eligible over the summer for breakfast and lunch programs, administered by the Children, Youth and Families Department. Some of these meal sites, the website says, provide educational and recreational activities as well.
I hope so. New Mexico’s disadvantaged kids need all the help we can provide.
We’re seeing some reports of improved reading scores. What we need to see will come in seven to 10 years, when – if these programs work – we should see lower dropout rates, higher student achievement and fewer of the awful social indicators we are so tired of.