The Lone Ranger and Summer Learning Loss

When I was five years old and living in Decatur, IL, we were reached by a signal from a St. Louis television station, KPLR. If memory serves, color test bars gave way to programming at 6:00am each morning. I made a point of being in front of the set whenever possible because the first show was a re-run episode of The Lone Ranger, the television western from the 1950s. It made a big impression on me that the hero of the show, who was remarkably handy with a pistol, favored silver bullets.

It was no accident. For a few centuries, silver weapons had been associated in folklore with special capacities when it comes to combatting unpleasant nuisances such as werewolves. Eventually, the term “silver bullet” came to describe a “simple, seemingly magical, solution to a difficult problem.” (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

There’s a funny thing about silver bullets. Being made of a precious metal doesn’t make them any more effective than any other type of bullet, except in the realm of fantasy. But at the same time, a silver bullet isn’t less effective, either. When the Lone Ranger shot them at bad guys, they worked just fine—not because they were silver but because they were bullets.

I’ve reflected on The Lone Ranger sometimes when reading debates about education research. The term “silver bullet” is bandied about with alarming frequency. (It would appear that I’m not the only kid who grew up on Lone Ranger re-runs.) We often hear about programs, interventions, or ideas that are not a silver bullet. They fall short of that magical ability to solve a difficult problem. Take your pick: We’ve been told that smaller classes, higher standards, charter schools, teacher evaluations, and so forth aren’t the silver bullets we were promised they would be.

To this list, we must add: ending summer learning loss. In a compelling piece for Education Next, Paul T. von Hippel walks readers through the research that led to the widely held conviction that American kids—particularly those from lower income backgrounds—lose academic skill during idle summer months, widening achievement gaps. If only we could beat back that loss, we might strike a massive blow for equity.

Slow down, counsels von Hippel. The studies that estimated the cost of summer learning loss were done decades ago with less sophisticated methods than are available today. Attempts to replicate the results fall short. It is possible that students don’t lose as much ground as we thought during summer vacation—and therefore, the potential benefit of stopping that loss isn’t what we hoped. Instead, he has come to believe that the gaps are largely present when kids begin school.

He may be right. His evidence is pretty good. It wouldn’t be the first time—or the last—that old data was trotted out year after year to make a bigger point than it could truly support. And if so, ending summer learning loss is not the silver bullet that will slay educational unfairness.

But I’m left with this question: Even if supports for summer learning aren’t a silver bullet, couldn’t they still be a regular bullet? Not magical—just useful? Because if low income students arrive at school behind their peers, and if those gaps do not close over the course of many school years, perhaps summer is a unique opportunity to direct targeted resources where they are needed. They may not alleviate the entirety of the challenge, but they might help demonstrably. After all, as von Hippel points out, there is good evidence that students benefit from programming such as extended year schooling. And he acknowledges that the summer months might still present a unique opportunity for catching students up:

“What else do we know about summer learning?" von Hippel writes. "There is one result that replicates consistently across every test that I’ve ever looked at. It’s so obvious that it’s easy to overlook, but it’s still important: nearly all children, no matter how advantaged, learn much more slowly during summer vacations than they do during the school years. That means that every summer offers children who are behind a chance to catch up. In other words, even if gaps don’t grow much during summer vacations, summer vacations still offer a chance to shrink them."

Summer supports work, if we keep have reasonable expectations for what they can and can’t do. So let’s not take away the wrong message. I suspect silver bullets in education are as much a fantasy as they are in re-runs of The Lone Ranger. Learning is complex and so are kids. No single tool is going to solve everything. Our success depends on executing as many sound strategies as possible over the course of each child’s entire experience. We don’t need to debate about silver bullets we lack—rather, we need to focus on the regular bullets we have.

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