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Finding Out How to Stop Summer Learning Loss

In summer school as in Wonderland, sometimes it takes all the running you can do, just to keep in the same place

Federal data suggests that low-income students lose one to three months of learning during the summer. Research presented at the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society offers educators a way to learn more about how to target summer interventions by tracking students who keep pace over the summer.

Joanna Christodoulou, who leads the Brain, Education, and Mind Lab, at the Massachusetts General Hospital's Institute of Health Professions, and her colleagues tracked early elementary students with reading difficulties who participated in Seeing Stars, a summer program that aims to improve students' ability to read silently, and aloud. At the beginning and end of the study, they also used functional MRI to measure the cortical thickness—a physical indicator of learning growth—in regions of the brain associated with reading development. 

Three out of four low-income students benefitted from the program, but only 26 percent of wealthier students did, suggesting low-income students had more room to grow. Moreover, the lowest-performing readers improved more than students who had read better at the start of the summer.

At first, the researchers found no difference in cortical thickness between the students who participated in the summer program and a control group of similar students who did not. Cortical thickness is a measure of the strength of connections in the brain and has been associated with greater learning.

However, the students who had shown academic growth by the end of the program did have cortical thickening, whereas the brains of students in the control group and participants who'd had no academic improvement showed cortical thinning, a sign of decline. 

"It might help us rethink what it means to define a successful intervention.hat if success in the summer is the absence of decline rather than the presence of growth at least as a first marker of success." Christodoulou said. "It might help us rethink what it means to define a successful intervention."


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