What summertime means for black children
The arrival of summer generates excitement. But it could also bring challenges for both parents and educators. Many students experience a loss in math learning during the summer months known commonly as “summer slide.”
Students from middle-class families may not be as affected as they have access to more resources to make up for the learning loss. However, those from lower-income backgrounds could experience significant losses, particularly in math and reading.
Researchers point to the summer slide as a contributing factor in the persistent academic achievement gap between students from lower-income backgrounds and their middle-class peers.
But, does race also conflate with class, when it comes to summer slide? What does summertime mean for black children and the parents and caregivers who care for them?
We are education researchers who are black and parents to two black children – one in elementary school and another in preschool. If the U.S. imagination constructs summer as a time for swimming, free play, baseball and lazy days on the beach, it has never played out this way in our home.
We feel the weight of summer – both for its limitations and its possibilities. To us, the summer is less a time to focus solely on fun and more of what we call the “summer soar.”
Summer goals for black parents
The term “summer soar” is not taken from research or policy studies. We use it to reflect the triple burden that some parents of color – in our case, black parents – could endure during the summer months.
For these parents, summertime provides time to accomplish three goals: (1) reinforce what was learned in the previous year, (2) get a head start on the upcoming year and, most importantly, (3) supplement valuable yet missing curriculum knowledge generally not offered in traditional schools that reflects students’ racial and cultural identities.
Let’s look at what we mean by missing curriculum knowledge.
We offer an example of this in a study we conducted with a researcher at Sacramento State College, Julian Vasquez-Heilig. The study examined how culture and race were addressed in the most recently adopted 11th grade U.S. history Texas state standards.
Findings highlighted that topics in the social studies standards did not fully address the contributions of people of color in the U.S. In the case of black people, much of the focus centered only on cultural contributions and not on the other ways black people contributed to the U.S. narrative.
Added to this was the tendency to give partial attention to the legacy of racism. This history of U.S. racism was not discussed as foundational to the development and maintenance of the country.
Black students’ mis-education
This is not unique to Texas nor found in the area of social studies alone. Education researchers have long acknowledged how official K-12 school curriculum and approaches to teaching fail to affirm black students’ cultural identities. They also reinforce the belief that black people have not made any contributions to the U.S. society.
As far back as the turn of the 20th century, notable scholars including W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson and Anna Julia Cooper addressed the problems and limitations of schooling for African-Americans.
As a result, black students run the risk of experiencing what historian Carter G. Woodson called “mis-education.” Mis-education is a process where school knowledge helps to foster a sense of contempt or disregard for one’s own histories and experiences, regardless of the level of education attained.
So, for us as parents and educators, the “summer soar” is not just about further developing our son’s academics. It is also about fostering a consciousness to help ward off the subtle effects of mis-education – a concern shared by many black families.
Why it is uniquely burdensome
We recognize that black parents are not the only ones worried about their children’s academic achievement and social development. Families, in general, are critical about the overreliance on standardized testing that makes school less a place for meaningful engagement.
Yet what makes the “summer slide” and as a consequence the “summer soar” experience of black parents uniquely burdensome is the context in which it occurs.
Along with the curriculum and teaching problems black children encounter in schools around race and culture, there is a legacy of positioning black males and black children in troubling, dehumanizing ways.
For example, scholars note that black children, specifically black boys, are often viewed as mature and “adult-like.” Their behaviors and experiences are not seen as part of the normal arc of childhood development. Scholars find that in this “adultification” process, black children are not given the allowance of childhood innocence.
These “deficit-oriented” perspectives are found not only in academic literature, but also in public policy, popular media and everyday conversations. A contemporary reflection of this is found in the call for the popular #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Being black in the summer
To be clear: We don’t feel we are approaching the “summer slide” or our “summer soar” from a place of unfounded anxiety or as parents too focused on their child’s education.
Black people have been and continue to be dealt with in schools and society in deeply problematic ways. Just consider the growing number of black families that are choosing to homeschool their children.
In a study that examined the perspectives of 74 African-American homeschoolers in the U.S., researchers Ama Mazama and Garvey Lundy found that the second most important reason that black parents chose to homeschool, right behind concerns with quality of education, was to protect against the racism found in traditional school settings.
Being black in the summer (or anytime really) is not easy. The challenge black families face is navigating an educational context that requires excelling in mainstream school settings, while buffering against the very same education systems that deny one’s humanity.
This summer, like all summers for us, is filled with ambitious goals. We want to help our rising second grader memorize multiplication facts, advance his reading level and improve his writing. But we also want to introduce him to poetry and literature by black authors, teach him about ancient African civilizations and expose him to the concepts of fairness and justice as key to the black struggle in the U.S.
Our task is not easy. But it is our reality – one that we share with countless others – that goes unrecognized in the popular discussions around “summer slide” and the idyllic dream of a lazy summer.
Keffrelyn Brown, Associate Professor of Cultural Studies in Education, University of Texas at Austin and Anthony L. Brown, Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Texas at Austin