Baltimore schools are not unusual among large American cities; typically, in urban schools achievement scores of low-income students fall farther and farther behind national averages the longer children attend public school (e.g., Education Week, Special January 1998 Issue). But what is less certain is whether the schools are largely responsible for these problems. Many factors, including poverty, meager funding, and poor parenting, have been blamed for widespread urban failure, yet there is little consensus in either public or academic debates about which factors are most important.
A recent study of Baltimore City school children sheds light on this important issue. Johns Hopkins University sociologists Karl Alexander and Doris Entwisle have been following the progress of 790 Baltimore students who began first grade in 1982. In trying to understand how public schools contribute (or fail to contribute) to student learning, they have studied standardized test results of these Baltimore children. But rather than studying changes in test scores from one grade to the next, Alexander and Entwisle have compared changes in test scores during the school months (September to June) to changes that occur over the summer months (June to September). They believe gains in test scores that occur during the school months can be thought of as “the school’s contribution to achievement,” while gains (or losses) that occur over the summer months are not likely to be related to schooling, but to children’s individual family and neighborhood circumstances. Because the group of Baltimore children they studied included poor and non-poor children, Alexander and Entwisle also analyzed how school-year and summer test score gains related to children’s economic circumstances.
Alexander and Entwisle found poor and non-poor children have very similar test score gains during the school year. However, more affluent Baltimore children continue to gain over the summer months, when school is not in session. Their test scores actually increase during the summer, while scores of less advantaged children typically decline or, at best, stay even over the summer. The authors argue that this pattern of year-round gains for advantaged children and school-year gains for less affluent children has profound implications for Baltimore and other urban school districts. But while social scientists know of these seasonal learning patterns, educators and the general public are generally not aware of these findings or of their importance for poor, urban school districts.