Teachers: STOP! Rethink the Summer Work Packet!

Summer Assignment Packets Not the Solution to the Stopping Summer Slide

Instead of summer assignment packets, reading-with choice- is the summer assignment that works!. Birgid Allig/GETTY Images

Simply stated: Summer vacation has a negative impact on academic performance.

In the book  Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement (2009) by John Hattie and Greg Yates, 39 studies were used to rank the effect of summer vacation on student achievement. The findings using this data are posted on the Visible Learning website. They noted that summer vacation  has one of the greatest negative effects( -.09 effect) on student learning.

To combat this negative impact, many teachers in middle and high schools are encourage to create discipline specific summer assignment packets. These packets are an attempt to equalize academic practice for all students during summer vacation. 

The summer assignment packets that teachers distribute at the end of a school year are designed for students to practice a few hours every week throughout the summer. What happens in reality, however, is that completing the summer packet often turns into a contentious activity.  Students may wait until the last possible moment to do schoolwork or lose the packet entirely. 

Additionally, depending on the grade level or subject or teacher, summer work packets vary in quality, length, and intensity. Examples of high school summer assignments on the Internet vary from two pages of geometry that can be completed online to 22 pages of geometry problems that must be downloaded to complete.

Multiple Advanced Placement courses, such as AP English Literature, show disparity in summer assignments with some schools offering a choice ("Read three novels from this list") to a required five novels matched with pages and pages of worksheets.

There is no standardized summer assignment packet for middle and high schools.

Who Complains about Summer Assignment Packets?

Complaints against the assigned summer work packets come from each of the stakeholders-parents, teachers, and students. Their complaints are understandable. Parents may argue for freedom from summer assignment packets suggesting that “My child needs a break,” or  “Why must we do this to students every summer?” or "This is more work for me than for my child!"

Teachers are not happy to begin the school year with a pile of  summer assignment papers to grade. Despite their best intentions in creating the packets, they do not want to start the year collecting -or chasing students for- summer assignment work. 

Harris Cooper, chairman of the department of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, addressed these concerns in his brief essay "Forgotten on Vacation." His response was featured in an editorial debate in the New York Times titled The Crush of Summer Homework in which several prominent educators were asked their opinions on summer assignments. Cooper was one who chose to respond as to how parents can meet the demands of the summer assignment packet:

"Parents, if the assignments are clear and reasonable, support the teachers. When your child says 'I’m bored' (what parent hasn’t heard this on a rainy summer day?) suggest they work on an assignment."

He also responded to the concerns of teachers:

"My advice? Teachers, you need to be careful about what and how much summer homework you assign. Summer homework shouldn’t be expected to overcome a student’s learning deficits; that’s what summer school is for."

However, in another response, "What Low Achievers Need,"  Tyrone Howard, associate professor at the U.C.L.A. Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, suggested that summer assignment packets do not work. He offered an alternative to the summer assignment packet: 

"A better approach than homework is to have more intensive, small learning community-type summer school programs that last four to six weeks."

Many educators who contributed to the NY Times debate  The Crush of Summer Homework viewed summer assignments as a measure of accountability or student responsibility rather than as academic practice.

They argued that many of the student who do not complete homework assignments as academic practice during the school year are unlikely to complete summer assignments. Missing or incomplete work is reflected in student grades, and missing or incomplete summer assignments can damage a student's grade point average (GPA).

For example, some of the summer work assignments posted for high school students on the Internet include warnings, such as:

Certain mathematical practice packets may take more than one day to complete. Don't wait until the last minute!

The teacher will personally consult with the student and/or parent if the student does not hand in the summer work packet on the first day of class.

This work will be 3% of your first quarter grade. 10 points will be deducted for each day it is late.

Seeing the impact on a student's GPA for incomplete or missing summer work, many educators argue, "If teachers cannot get students to turn in homework during the school year, especially when they see them every day, what is the chance that these summer work assignments will be completed?"

Student Complaints

But students are the most vocal group arguing against the summer assignment packet.  

The question "Should Students be given summer homework?"  was featured on  Debate.org. 

18% Students say "Yes" to summer assignments

82% Students say "No" to summer assignments

Comments from the debate arguing against summer assignments included:

"Summer homework takes around 3 days and it feels like the whole summer" (7th grade student).

"Mostly summer homework is just a review so you don't really learn anything. I'm going into 8th grade and I'm not learning anything it's all a review for me."

"If a student really wants to learn, they will do extra work, without it being assigned."

"The homework should just be suggestions, to stop students from stressing out over work that probable won't even be checked."

In contrast, there were some students who saw value in summer assignments, but most of these comments reflected the attitudes of students who already expected additional work from their advanced level classes.

"I, for example, am going to be enrolling in an Advanced Literature course next year and have been assigned two books to read this summer, an essay to write....this pushes me to find out more information about the subject matter that will be in the course."

While students who take advanced level (Advanced Placement, honors,  International Baccalaureate, or college credit courses) like the one above fully expect to engage in academic practice, there are other students who do not see the importance keeping their academic skills sharp. While a summer packet is designed to help all students, regardless of ability, the student who may not complete the work may be the very student who most needs the practice

No "Buy-in" from Students

In an interview posted on Great Schools,  Denise Pope, senior lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education and co-founder of Challenge Success, a research and student-intervention project, agrees that the months off for summer vacation is too long a time for students "not do anything," but she expressed concern stating "I’m not sure this idea of giving workbooks and pages and pages of handouts works.” Her reason for why summer assignments may not work?  No student buy-in:

 “In order for any learning to be retained, there has to be engagement on the part of the students.”

She explained that student must be intrinsically motivated to complete the systematic practice that is designed in the summer assignments. Without student motivation, an adult must monitor the work, which according to Pope, "puts a burden more on the parents.”

What Does Work? Reading!

One of the best researched based recommendations for summer assignments is to assign reading. Rather than spending time to create and then grade  a summer assignment packet that may or may not be done at all, educators should be encouraged to assign reading. This reading can be discipline specific, but by far, the best way to have students maintain academic skills during the summer-at every grade level- is to encourage their motivation to read.

Offering students choice in reading can improve their motivation and participation. In a meta-analysis titled Reading Takes You Places: A Study of a Web-based Summer Reading Program, Ya-Ling Lu and Carol Gordon recorded ways that student choice in reading increased engagement which led to improved academic achievement. In the study the traditional required reading lists of classics was replaced with  recommendations based on several of the following research-based guidelines:

1. People who say they read more read better (Krashen 2004), therefore the primary purpose of the [summer] program is to encourage students to read more.
2. In order to encourage students to read more, the primary purpose of summer reading is reading for fun rather than for academic purposes. 
3. Student choice is an important element in reading engagement (Schraw et al. 1998) including the choice to pursue personal reading interests.
4. Materials and materials access can be Web-based (Note: 92% of teens report going online daily — including 24% who say they go online “almost constantly,”  Pew Research Center)

The results showed an increase in student motivation and engagement, leading to improved academic performance.

Summer Packets vs. Reading

Despite the research (see below) that proves motivation and systemic practice must be in place for summer assignment packets to help student, many teachers, particularly at the middle and high school levels, will still assign summer work packets. Their time and effort, however, may be better spent assigning reading in their content area, and where possible, offering student choice in reading.

While summer vacation allows students to have time to play and to relax, why not encourage students to practice over the summer the kind of academic practice that reinforces a critical life-long skill, the skill of reading?

Additional Research on Summer Reading:

Allington, Richard. Summer Reading: Closing the Rich/Poor Reading Achievement Gap. NY: Teachers College Press, 2012.

Fairchild, Ron. "Summer: A Season When Learning is Essential." Afterschool Alliance. Center for Summer Learning. 2008. Web. <http://www.afterschoolalliance.org/issue_briefs/issue_summer_33.pdf>

Kim, Jimmy. “Summer Reading and the Ethnic Achievement Gap.” Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR). 2004. Web. <http://www.ala.org/research/librariesmatter/node/161>

Krashen, Stephen. "Free Reading." Pasco School District. School Library Journal. 2006. Web. <http://www.psd1.org/cms/lib4/WA01001055/centricity/domain/34/admin/free reading (2).pdf>

National Summer Learning Association. n.d. http://www.summerlearning.org/about-nsla/

"Report of the National Reading Panel: Findings and Determinations of the National Reading Panel by Topic Areas.” National Institute of Health. 2006. Web. <https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/Pages/findings.aspx>