The “summer slide” meets the coronavirus…

How much “dislearning” have children experienced during the schools’ shut down?

In his 2008 bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion of an educational “summer slide”.

Referencing a tracking study of Baltimore City Public School students, Gladwell highlighted evidence that students’ standardized test scores in the fall were generally lower than their scores in the prior spring.

His observation: “Between school years, students’ accumulated learning is diminished”.

In other words, there is a statistically significant “forget factor” if learning isn’t reinforced and edged forward with summer enrichment activities (think: summer school, educational camps, field trips, parental tutoring).

The summer slide is most pronounced for poor students who lack summer enrichment opportunities … and for all students in math. 

The black line below illustrates the math score drop-off for typical 3rd, 4th and 5th graders. On average, the typical summer slide in math skills is about 2%.  That is, students are 2% less proficient in math after their summer vacations.

Source: WSJ

To make matters worse, note the red line on the chart … it illustrates the projected drop-off due to this year’s virus-induced school closings.

It’s estimated that students will be about 5% less proficient in math than they were when the schools closed … the combined effect of lesser learning during the schools’ shut-down period and an extended summer slide (with many schools declaring no mas in early June) .

More specifically…


The WSJ did a study and paints an even more dire picture, concluding that The Results Are In for Remote Learning: It Didn’t Work.

To the headline point:

Preliminary research suggests students nationwide will return to school in the fall with roughly 70% of learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year, and less than 50% in math.

Why is that?

While lauding educators’ good intentions, the WSJ observes that “the problems began piling up almost immediately” for remote learning.

There were students with no computers or internet access.

Teachers had no experience with remote learning.

Many parents were still working and unavailable to help, stretched thin across multiple children, befuddled by the “new math” … or, “distracted” by financial distress.

In many instances, students — some lacking internet access or computers — simply didn’t show up online.

When students did show up, they tended to be undermotivated and marginally attentive … sometimes walking away from their computers after logging on and being counted as “present”.

Teachers quickly learned that it’s difficult to keep students engaged online … that the “supervised learning tension” that’s present in a classroom is lacking online …  and that, with grading largely tossed out the window, students naturally devolved to “why bother?”

One key learning for educators:  “being a digital consumer and a digital learner are two different things.”

Even though many students these days are tech savvy and screen-glued, that doesn’t necessarily “port” to remote learning.

Many educators assumed that since students spend all their time on their devices, it would be no big leap for them to learn remotely.

Education experts now conclude that there is a huge gap between what students can do for fun on their cellphones and gaming systems and how good they are at using a device for educational tasks such as reading a document, answering a question or figuring out a problem.

And, the playing field changed: Teachers are no longer just “competing” against other teachers and subjects for students’ interest … now, they are directly competing against Fortnite and Tik Tok.

That’s not a fair fight…


P.S.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we knew how much students’ have regressed while schools have been closed?

To find out, give students a round of standardized tests at the start of the school year. 

Results would likely shock educators, parents and politicos alike.

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