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Posted on Mon, Jul 27, 2009 : 4:59 a.m.

Summer learning combats 'brain drain,' but how to keep kids motivated?

By Jen Eyer

Summer vacation.

For me, the words conjure up childhood images of going to Upper Silver Lake, swimming at the pool, riding bikes around the neighborhood and spending countless summer nights at pony league baseball games under the bridge at Fitzgerald Field.

The only academic thing I can recall about my childhood summers is visiting the bookmobile, which my mom made sure we did every week. I read a ton in the summer, but math and science were definitely on hiatus (hmm... maybe that explains why I became a writer!).

Things certainly have changed since then.

Summer for our children is still filled with the kinds of things mentioned above, but today's parents are also being encouraged to keep kids working on academics — to avoid summer brain drain.

Research now shows that:

  • All young people experience learning losses when they do not engage in educational activities during the summer. Research spanning 100 years shows that students typically score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer vacation than they do on the same tests at the beginning of the summer (White, 1906; Heyns, 1978; Entwisle & Alexander 1992; Cooper, 1996; Downey et al, 2004).
  • Most students lose about two months of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer months. Low-income students also lose more than two months in reading achievement, despite the fact that their middle-class peers make slight gains (Cooper, 1996).
  • More than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities. As a result, low-income youth are less likely to graduate from high school or enter college (Alexander et al, 2007).

Wondering whether the math slide was equal across the economic spectrum, I looked up that Cooper study. He specifically notes that "all students, regardless of the resources in their home, lost roughly equal amounts of math skills over summer."

At Belle's school, Dicken Elementary, the PTO is piloting a program called ThinkStretch this summer for students who just finished kindergarten and first grade. The main component is grade-specific learning workbooks for each student, which meet national education standards (see a list of skills reviewed by grade).

The program kicked off with an assembly in June to explain it to the students. In the fall, the students will bring their workbooks back to school, and those who have completed the book will receive gold medals. Silver and bronze medals will be awarded for partially-completed work.

When summer break started, Belle was eager to do the workbook. She liked the little brain guy and the professor, and she was energized by the assembly. The whole thing sounded like fun.

Now, four weeks into summer, the only thing keeping her going is the medal —specifically, the thought of not getting a gold medal when some of her peers will. The usual reaction when I suggest she work on it is resistance, until I say, "Do you want to be the only one who doesn't get a gold medal?" Then she grudgingly gets to work. Once she gets into it, though, she seems to enjoy it.

There has to be a better way to keep her motivated. It probably would help if we scheduled a certain time every day that she's supposed to work on it; the trick is finding a time that we're always home.

But I do think it's worth the effort. I recently read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and I wrote about the section on why Asians excel in math here. In summary, Gladwell posits that Asian students outperform American students in math because there is an inherent advantage in their language and number system which makes learning math easier, and because they have a long history and culture of year-round hard work, which can be traced back to centuries of labor-intensive rice farming.

Reading this made me question whether our summer vacations, as idyllic as they can be, are really the best thing for our children. At the very least, it made me more open to requiring my children to accomplish some academic work during the summer.

So far, we've got reading covered. Belle is really excited about being able to read on her own, and she routinely reads for an hour in bed every night.

But she doesn't view reading in the same light as the workbook, which is what I'm relying on for her math practice. Reading is seen as a hobby, while the workbook is "homework," and homework already has a bad name. Maybe what Belle needs is for Kevin and me to organize more hands-on math activities. I'm going to start researching that for a future post.

The math aspect is really important to me, because I think as a child I probably experienced a summer backslide in math. In early elementary, I was ahead of the curve, but by high school, I was behind and detested the subject. In fact, I never went past algebra, and I still have a recurring nightmare in which MSU revokes my college degree because I didn't take any math courses.

As you can imagine, I'm anxious for Belle not to repeat this relationship with math. I want her to love it and to be good at it, because so many great careers require a strong math background. I don't want any doors to be closed to her before she even gets a chance to consider them.

Jen Eyer is on the Community Team at She can be reached at 734-623-2577 or, or you can visit her at the first floor office at 301 East Liberty.

Photo captions: 1. Belle at our kitchen table, working on her ThinkStretch book. Photo by Jen Eyer.


Scott Beal

Thu, Jul 30, 2009 : 10:37 a.m.

Hi Jen. To play devil's advocate... do you worry that your daughter might grow to resent math if she has to work on during the summer?


Sat, Jul 25, 2009 : 10:54 a.m.

Rather than asking her if she wants to be the only one to not get a medal, ask her if the medal is that important to her. She may enjoy the subject more if the artificial competition with other students is removed. I would check with the teacher prior to summer to see what she recommends - there are plenty of activity books that focus on math (and all manner of other subjects) available from a bookstore that can be utilized, and may feel more "fun."

Pam Stout

Fri, Jul 24, 2009 : 6:48 a.m.

Good question! I must admit most of the motivation comes through Mom, and I haven't been very consistent with it. Our school is having playground play dates this summer with parents and volunteer teachers to provide help with the program, so there's a social motivator too. I typically bring the book along with us on car trips add have her do a few pages before she gets to do other stuff. Once she's working on it, she doesn't mind. I do believe the non-academic pursuits of summer add tremendous value to our kids' "education", so I don't push it too hard.

Pam Stout

Thu, Jul 23, 2009 : 6:04 p.m.

My daughter is also enjoying the ThinkStretch program launched at Bryant elementary this summer too. Thanks for spreading the news!