Hey, parents, it's time for that great summer ritual: Nagging your kids to do their homework before school starts.
That's right. Lots of schools send kids packing for the summer with homework. It might be as minimal as a few math sheets, or a vague suggestion to read every day. But for many high school students, there's work ahead of Advanced Placement courses in the fall, and papers due in September on difficult books.
In some schools, kids get the ultimate "welcome back" present the first day of school: An in-class essay exam to make sure they followed through on their summer studies of the Holocaust or the Taliban. (What, you thought they'd get to read mysteries and romance? This ain't the beach — this is sophomore English!)
Why the trend? According to Harris Cooper, Duke University's chairman of psychology and neuroscience, "research does say that kids forget things over the summer," with standardized tests showing lower scores in the fall than in the spring. While schools have been handing out summer reading lists for years, "an assignment with some kind of evaluation at the beginning of the school year" is a fairly new phenomenon, he said.
Jimmy Kim, a Harvard education professor whose research on summer learning losses is widely cited, says maintaining literacy skills is especially critical for low-income children. "Poor kids fall behind in literacy two months in the summer, and they do not catch up," he said. "These losses accumulate over time."
Still, lots of kids — and parents — hate the fact that summer assignments "are hanging over their heads," as Sara Bennett put it.
"Summer should be a time to have a real break. Most schools assign four or five books, so the kids never get to develop their own reading tastes," said Bennett, who blogs at StopHomework.com and is the co-author of "The Case Against Homework."
She noted that summer reading is also "often something pretty heavy. It's never that happy fluff reading I'd take on a vacation."
Maggie Schiff Gieseke, a mom from Cincinnati, says her oldest daughter, a rising high school senior, is supposed to read "Hamlet," "The Oedipus Cycle" and "A Farewell to Arms," among other things. Her younger girl, who'll be a freshman, must read "The Hobbit" and "The House on Mango Street" by Sandra Cisneros.
But the "only thing I have actually seen them reading this summer is People magazine," said Gieseke, joking that she hopes for "a change in the fall curriculum which focuses more on Jon and Kate, Michael Jackson and celebrity fashions. My kids could ace that test."
Drew McLellan's daughter Kelsey is plowing through summer reading for an AP English class she'll be taking this fall at Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa. She'll have to turn in a paper when school starts on a book called "How to Read Literature Like a Professor" and on Stephen King's memoir, "On Writing." Her other assignments include readings for an online discussion group and annotating books from a list with choices like "Slaughterhouse-Five" and "The Bookseller of Kabul."
"I understand what the teachers are trying to do — trying to keep their heads in the game," McLellan said. "But if it's summer break, it should be summer break."
Ruth Radetsky, who teaches math and statistics at Balboa High School in San Francisco, says most AP teachers give summer homework, but she doesn't. "At my school, in my subject, summer homework is either make-work or it puts students who join the class in the fall at a disadvantage," she said.
Some parents approve of summer work. "I always gave my children reading, writing and math to do," said Claudia Krefetz in New York City. "Learning and learning skills require practice, and 10-plus weeks of vacation is too long a break away."
Kim's research shows kids who read four or five books in the summer don't experience the drop in scores that typically takes place between spring and fall. But he noted that what kids read, at least in elementary school, matters.
They have to be motivated to do the reading, which means giving them some choice of material based on their interests. But he said they also have to be guided, so that what they pick is neither too hard nor too easy. Otherwise they won't maintain and build their literacy skills.
Kim added that most research on summer learning losses has involved elementary school students, not high school, so whether summer homework benefits teenagers is not known.
But he offered some additional food for thought: Studies show leisure reading overall is down in the U.S., and there's evidence the "frequency with which you read predicts your literacy levels." Literacy levels are also "highly correlated with the kind of job you have and how much money you make," he said.
So if you're having trouble getting your 16-year-old to finish "Lord of the Flies" or "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," tell them that someday, how well they read might determine a lot more than how they fare in AP English.
Beth J. Harpaz is the author of several books, including "13 Is the New 18."