Math's steep summer slide: how far behind is your child?

Kids are losing math skills during the summer. Meanwhile, math standards are becoming more demanding. Here's how to keep your child from plunging down the math slide.

By Crystal Yednak

Hello summer! Goodbye math?

Between pool time, T-ball, and tag, I’ve managed to work reading, word games, and story time into my kids' summer game plan. But every one of the academic activities I’ve snuck in has been reading-related. My kids and I rarely, OK never, play math games during long car rides or puzzle over tough math problems while lounging on the beach. My math-anemic family, it seems, is not alone. Researchers say on average kids lose 1.8 months of math skills during summer break.

The loss of math knowledge affects every kind of kid. “Whether you are a low-income child or a high-income child, you lose math knowledge or skills at the same rate over the summer,” says Catherine Augustine, senior policy researcher for the RAND Corporation, which released a 2011 report on the summer learning slide. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why kids' math slide is so steep: reading is more naturally woven into a child’s daily life; math, no so much. “Even though we as adults use mathematics every day of our lives, I’m not sure kids do,” says Linda Gojak, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Tasks like balancing the checkbook or price comparing while shopping are hardly part of a child's day-to-day life when school is out. A kid's math deficit during vacation is made worse because keeping math skills sharp takes more rigor and focus than simply picking up a book to pass a lazy summer day. Math, points out Augustine, requires a student to follow carefully a specific set of steps. Without a tutor, teacher, or parent reminding a student to do each step, most students have a tough time tackling math problems on their own.

Common Core Standards up the ante

The math summer slide problem is exacerbated with the recent introduction of the Common Core Standards, a new set of national academic standards for math and English language arts adopted by 45 states. Math educators worry about implementing the new standards, which set the bar high. With this rigorous and sometimes unfamiliar curriculum, teachers have less time to review last year's material with students at the beginning of the new school year.

Implicit in the Common Core Standards is the expectation "that kids will enter third grade knowing everything they should in second grade, so you don’t need to spend the beginning of the year reteaching,” says NCTM's Gojak. More reason than ever to make sure your child's up to speed during the summer months.

Where does your child stand?

Before you can help your child retain math skills during the long school break, you need to understand where he is in his learning curve. “The best advice for parents is to go to the teacher at the last teacher conference and really have a talk about summer,” says Kate Shatzkin, spokeswoman for the National Summer Learning Association. “Ask what math skills and strategies mean the most in the next grade and what your child may need practice,” she says. The teacher may even have ideas for games, books, or websites to help your child. Some teachers develop their own summer calendars for parents, too.

But if school’s out and the teacher’s unavailable, you can still figure out if your child is on track with math and what he'll need to know next year. The National PTA offers grade-level guides to help parents understand what is required by the Common Core Standards. You can print out the skills your child should have mastered last year and preview the skills coming in the year ahead. (For math skills practice, try our free preK-5 math worksheets, which all are pegged to the Common Core Standards.)

For older children, you can also try online assessment tools to see where your child stands, Shatzkin says. At Fit4Algebra, for example, students answer 21 questions to help gauge their readiness for algebra class.

Summer school then and now

When I was a kid, summer school was a punishment. You had to go if you flunked a class or missed too many days of school. Now it’s different. Given what academic experts tell us about the loss of reading and math skills over summer, it seems most students stand to gain from at least some summer class time.

School districts are attacking the summer slide in different ways. More than 200 Chicago schools, for example, now operate on a year-round calendar that runs the same number of school days as the traditional schedule, but spreads shorter breaks throughout the year, minimizing summer learning loss. Others, like Miami-Dade County Public Schools, have overhauled summer school by improving instruction and using more web-based programs to involve more students.

Contact your local school or school district to find out what they offer. If you find that summer school math pickings are slim where you live, there may be other options. It's just a matter of knowing where to look.

From math tutors to math camp

Most libraries run summer reading clubs, but it’s rare to see an equivalent for math. Park districts, church camps, and community centers work literacy into their summer programs in fun ways, but largely manage to ignore math. The answer? Math tutors, which are often a terrific way to give your child the kind of one-on-one support she needs to get on track. For a more structured approach, parents can turn to math tutoring services such as Mathnasium or Sylvan Learning, which are found in strip malls across the country. Teachers and even older, math-savvy students sometimes hire themselves out as tutors in the summer, too. Check local online listings and ask other parents for recommendations.

For more of a “camp” experience, inquire at your local university, where there may be options. For example, Boston University offers a summer math camp for high school students looking to see what college life is like. Many university camps are residential, but you can also check with community colleges and high schools to see if teachers there organize anything for the summer break. NCTM's Gojak says that building math clubs in local libraries (similar to reading clubs) may be a key part of the solution to the summer math slide.

Screening for help

So does combating math's summer slide mean you should spend the break relentlessly drilling your kids on multiplication tables and shoving flash cards in their faces? Not at all, experts say. Plenty of websites offer help for parents looking to increase their kids’ exposure to math while keeping their kids inspired, too. “Not just any site will do,” says NCTM's Gojak. “Drilling can be not exciting and turn kids off.” NCTM has designed a site called Calculation Nation to positively reinforce — through exercises and games — kids' math skills and their understanding of the theories behind them.

Catherine Augustine says parents should also look for everyday ways to prompt math learning on a regular basis. Summer, in fact, offers plenty of opportunities to practice math skills without the drills. For younger kids, count out the small change they've saved so they can figure out how much they'll have to spend during family vacation. Have older children estimate the mileage and cost of gas for a road trip. Once in the car, quiz the kids — making it a game, 'natch — on their multiplication tables in the car. Anyone who can multiply their 9's gets a double-deck ice cream cone.

Crystal Yednak is a mom of two and a freelance writer who writes about education and parenting topics for national and regional publications.