The summer math brain drain

By Murray Bourne, 30 Aug 2007

Even though most North America students are still on their long summer school break, the amount of traffic to Interactive Mathematics from the US has still been quite strong.

According to a recent study by Harris Cooper, Professor of Psychological Sciences at the University of Missouri :

On average, all students regardless of socio-economic status, lose approximately 2.6 months of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation over the summer months.

(Cited by John Hopkins Center for Summer Learning in On Summer Loss, which is no longer available.)

In other words, everybody forgets math over the summer. Yep, nothing new there.

But is that because we (as a society) have lost the connection between 'school math' and 'real math'? In another century (the last one, and I mean closer to the middle of it), it was more likely that weekends and holidays were spent helping Dad build toys, or helping Mum to do some cooking. And what happened as part of the process? Things needed to be measured and calculated; and problems needed solving (like can I cut 4 pieces out of that large piece of masonite for the model house I'm building? Can I figure out 2/3 of 1/2 cup of sugar?). We also needed to fix bicycles or the curious among us would pull apart engines to see how they worked.

And what did we learn? Heaps of valuable hands-on mathematics - and physics and mechanics - that had meaning because we were interested to get our toy finished or fixed; or the cake baked.

Move forward to today. What happens over the summer now? Kids rarely do anything outside (except maybe sports) and no-one makes anything because the Chinese do it for us at a lower cost.

Back to the Research

Cooper's 2003 article, Summer Learning Loss: The Problem and Some Solutions (no longer available), sheds more light on the issue.

First, some background to the current school calendar:

The present 9-month calendar emerged when 85% of Americans were involved in agriculture and when climate control in school buildings was limited. Today, about 3% of Americans' livelihoods are tied to the agricultural cycle, and air-conditioning makes it possible for schools to provide comfortable learning environments year-round

Some of the effects of long summer breaks:

  • The long summer vacation breaks the rhythm of instruction, leads to forgetting, and requires a significant amount of review of material when students return to school in the fall.
  • Summer loss was more pronounced for math overall than for reading overall.
  • Reading comprehension scores of both [high and low] income groups declined, but the scores of disadvantaged students declined more.

Possible Solutions

Cooper suggests 3 possibilities:

  • Extended School Year.
  • Summer School.
  • Modified Calendars. [...] Many proponents of school calendar change call for modified arrangements in which children might or might not attend school for more days, but the long summer vacation is replaced by shorter cycles of attendance breaks.

Is more school better school? Not necessarily, but an international comparison (1991) is interesting.

The US has just over 1000 hours of instruction per year, beaten by China at 1,276, Taiwan at 1,177, France at 1,073 and Switzerland at 1,052. So while the US is at 13th rank for the number of school days, total instruction hours is 5th.

I was going to try to find more recent figures, but we all know "hours of instruction" is a nebulous thing, especially considering the Game of School.

Seems to me that Cooper's 3rd solution would be the most palatable - reduce the summer gap and increase the other breaks. I know some schools are already doing this.

Anyone like to add your thoughts and experience on this?

For those of you starting school again next Tuesday - all the best.

See the 4 Comments below.

4 Comments on “The summer math brain drain”

  1. Li-sa says:

    I'm just dropping a thought.

    I'm going to study in F.4 after the summer holidays.

    The math holiday assignments were weekly exercises online. Not only does it contain drills on revision and learning the ABCs of F.4 math, but it features a professor's tips on solving HKCEE (Hong Kong Certified Education Examination, taken at the end of F.5) Math questions too. Besides a comprehensive revision, I learnt about variations by listening carefully to the professor's video which features the tips. (I cheated a little, though - I used GeoGebra to solve most questions in the final exercise: F.4 Drills.)

    I hope more schools would participate in such ancillary activities. To play fair, the assignment websites/programs shouldn't allow external programs running on the same computer.
    Li-sa, HK

  2. Murray says:

    >> "I cheated a little, though - I used GeoGebra to solve most questions in the final exercise: F.4 Drills."

    Is it really cheating, Li-sa?

    In the 'real world', don't we use the best tool available to get the job done quickest and most accurately?

    The people who learn to properly use "external programs running on the same computer" will be the most productive at work.

  3. Li-sa says:

    Debatable, like using calculators in exams!

  4. Munzir says:

    well i believe that Cooper's 3rd option is the best for most schools. I have finished my high schooland is now starting my varsity years. I found that my high school years holidays at the end of the year beginning november till 3rd January is extremely long. This caused many returning students to lag behind even in the most simplest assignments.

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