As a pediatric dentist practicing in Maine over the last decade I’ve learned a lot about our children. While the oral health of my young patients is the primary purpose for visits to my office, their overall health, safety and well-being is also of the utmost importance.
That’s what motivated me to propose a ban on smoking in cars with children present in 2006 while I resided in Bangor, and today it’s a rarity that a child arrives at my office smelling of tobacco.
I have been and continue to be deeply troubled by the numbers of children who tell me they don’t read any books over the summer months.
I remember all too well my own lack of interest in reading books during summer vacation. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood, there was little encouragement from family or peers to read over the summer.
As summer approached at the end of sixth grade, our teacher handed my classmates and me a list of a dozen books we were expected to read over vacation, and informed us we would be tested when we returned in the fall for seventh grade. I was stunned, but excited about this new challenge. It was this experience, this required assignment in sixth grade, that sparked my life-long love of reading.
Reading books opened up a whole new world for me. Reading books made me dream of accomplishing bigger things, expanded my understanding of the world, piqued my curiosity, and most importantly made me more knowledgeable. There is little doubt that this simple summer homework assignment was a life-changing experience.
As we look at the future of the children of Maine and our state’s economy, one can’t help but be concerned about our lackluster examination results in reading comprehension. While the national average in reading proficiency among fourth graders in the United States is steadily increasing, it continues to decline in Maine.
Something must be done to turn this around so our children can compete with those from other states, with comparable opportunities to achieve life success.
There is an abundance of research indicating that when students don’t read during the summer months, they experience what is known as summer learning loss, or the “Summer Slide.” They then require one full month at the beginning of the next school year to simply get them back to the level at which they finished the previous school year. And this is just the students who are reading proficiently or at grade level. What this amounts to is a lost month at school, inefficient use of taxpayer dollars and, most importantly, a hindrance on our students’ ability to realize their full potential.
I’ve broached the topic of mandating summer reading with several school administrators in Maine. The concern they have shared with me is that required summer reading would upset parents, indeed a perplexing response.
We need to support schools in their mission of educating our state’s future. We need to give children the tools to dream big and to succeed in their future endeavors. And as I experienced in my own childhood, we need to give children better opportunities than their parents had as children. Each new generation should be promised a brighter future than the previous. When it comes to education, our schools must place high expectations on our students, often exceeding those at home.
Parents are well aware of the need for summer learning opportunities, however the average cost surpasses many parents’ ability to afford them. In one study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, roughly 86 percent of parents support public funding for summer education programs. While we have limited resources in Maine, this endeavor would require a minimal investment for immeasurable return.
The Maine Legislature should mandate summer reading for children in our state. No one likes mandates, but if we expect our students to achieve more and in turn improve the economic outlook and future of Maine, we must take the necessary steps to achieve this goal. We must work together — local government, parents, and schools — to make this a reality.
Dr. Jonathan Shenkin is a pediatric dentist in Augusta and clinical associate professor of Health Policy, Health Services Research and Pediatric Dentistry at Boston University.