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summer learning loss
Rising fourth graders listen as a teacher reads a book at an elementary school summer program in Silver Spring, MD. Credit: Photo: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

As the coronavirus closes schools, online platforms are proving to be invaluable, allowing instruction to continue and alleviating the severity of students’ learning loss. But use of these programs and other supports now is not enough: We must look to the summer months as another chance of salvation for students who are falling behind academically.

Many districts across the country have already announced they will keep school buildings shuttered for the rest of the academic year. That means many students will go six months without stepping foot in a school or any structured environment outside the home, since it’s very unlikely most summer programs will be available.

The thought of the effect this lack of structure will have on masses of children is frightening, especially its impact on kids from low-income families who already tend to lag behind. To make up for probable academic gaps produced during this unprecedented period, districts should continue providing academic services online in the summer.

Summer has always been a time when gaps get wider. The seminal Coleman Report published in 1966 showed that student outcomes inside the classroom are predicated on their circumstances outside the classroom. More recent studies show that the summer is a pivotal period for student learning. According to 2018 study by the U.S. Department of Education, kindergarteners from non-poor families were more than 5 times as likely to enroll in summer camp as children from poor families (39 percent versus 7 percent).  Poor families were twice as likely to say that they “never” used technology for educational purposes with their kindergarteners than families with higher incomes (32 percent versus 16 percent).

Related: Coronavirus opens doors to rethinking education

Not surprisingly, a family’s financial resources strongly influence the activities they participate in during summer months. The Department of Education report found that 91 percent of non-poor families visited beaches, lakes, rivers, or state or national parks with their kindergarteners during the summer whereas only 81 percent of poor families did the same. Sixty-nine percent of non-poor families with kindergarteners visited locations like zoos and aquariums, while just 54 percent of poor families did so. Art galleries, museums, or historical sites were popular with almost two-thirds of non-poor families, while less than a third of poor families took their kindergarteners to these locations in the summer before first grade. These disparities have significant implications for children’s success within the classroom.

If we really want to overcome this annual crisis, we all need to internalize school as a part of our summer experience.

But, for all kids, summer learning loss is a setback. A 2017 review of the literature by my Brookings colleagues found “on average, students’ achievement scores declined over summer vacation by one month’s worth of school-year learning” and that the loss was especially great for math.

By this fall, students may retain less than 50 percent of the math learning gains otherwise expected, putting them almost a full year behind in math, according to a report by NWEA, a nonprofit testing organization. In reading, students may maintain about 70 percent of their typical gains, forcing a lengthy beginning-of-the-year review that will gobble up time for new learning. “We must provide resources and support to families during and after this disruption, especially in mathematics, which often show the steepest losses over summers and time outside of school,” the NWEA researchers urged.

Many parents and education advocates have dreamed of year-round schooling to fight the summer slide. Not only would it mitigate summer learning loss, but it would ease the burden on parents of finding positive, structured activities.

The reason we haven’t made the leap is because of some substantial hurdles. Districts certainly haven’t budgeted for full-fledged summer school, and the threat the economic crisis poses to education funding right now will make finding the money to provide programs more daunting. Labor unions would also need to modify aspects of collective bargaining agreements that may prohibit adoption.

But if we really want to overcome this annual crisis, we all need to internalize school as a part of our summer experience.

Related: After coronavirus subsides, we must pay teachers more

School in the summer doesn’t have to be the same as it is during the regular school year; it can provide the sort of play-based and exploratory learning experiences that are offered by camps. And if there’s a silver lining to our social distancing efforts, it’s that we are slowly becoming more efficient at using technology for educational purposes in and out of the classroom.

Our widespread foray into distance learning is forcing teachers to optimize technology. Some of the strategies they’re using now might easily be extended through the summer months. We must continue to provide access to software, online libraries and educational videos. We can learn from our coronavirus experience: We can be distant and connected at the same time.

If schools remain closed until fall, students may retain less than 50 percent of the math learning gains otherwise expected, putting them almost a full year behind in math, according to a report by NWEA.

Schools’ actions matter in helping to alleviate the disparities created outside the classroom. In particular, teachers’ encouragement of reading over the summer months can have a positive effect on reducing students’ summer learning loss. A 2018 meta-analysis found that summer interventions are likely most effective for improving outcomes for low-income students and narrowing the achievement gap between students who are poor and those who are not.

However, teachers haven’t maximized the use of technology during the summer or the regular school year because districts and cities haven’t made the hardware and software as accessible as textbooks. Likewise, cities haven’t figured out ways to offer free-public Wi-Fi. But now, districts in cities like New Orleans, Detroit and Washington, D.C. are doling out computers and providing access to Wi-Fi — ostensibly essential learning tools — because of the coronavirus emergency. While a pandemic shouldn’t be the impetus for giving students what they need, we can take advantage of the fact that the crisis is forcing districts to finally close the digital divide.

If districts continue to provide hardware and software to students, if municipalities and broadband companies can find ways to provide public, high-speed internet across the district, and if states and districts put more money into summer school to pay for teachers who want to teach in the summer months (that’s a lot of ifs), then school systems can address summer learning loss. Children don’t stop learning because school doors close. It’s in everyone’s interest to make sure they’re learning something that will set them up for future success.

But we must first get over the mental hurdle that school and summer don’t mix. It’s a barrier the coronavirus is helping us get over quickly.

This story about summer learning loss was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Letters to the Editor

3 Letters

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  1. If schools want to hold summer school to halt the learning slide, can’t schools plan for it, and change the curriculum to prevent the learning slide? And if summer school is that effective to halt a learning slide, then why don’t schools incorporate summer school into the regular school year? And why is summer school more effective than the regular year curriculum or remote learning for that matter?
    This whole idea predicates itself on the fact that more is better. But more isn’t better; better is better.

  2. Dear Editor,
    As soon as I saw the article stating that every school needs to offer summer school this year, I immediately knew it wasn’t written by someone in the trenches. It had to be written by someone who is grossly unaware of what remote learning is really like right now.

    I serve special education students who are poor, Black and live in a violent area of a large midwestern city. I am working twice as hard and twice as long as I ever did when I was teaching in a classroom. And I was working very hard then. I am developing lessons from scratch that comply with IEP goals, finding the best technology resources for my students, learning how to use the various sites, staying in contact with parents and the children, helping them navigate the technology, grading assignments, attending multiple weekly school meetings, producing reports on missing assignments, documenting all contact with parents, children and service providers, supervising a first-year para with no technical skills, producing school requested reports, and on it goes, often 12 hours a day.

    Teaching remotely is so much harder than in person, especially for the population I serve, who need multi-sensory instruction. I am not sure how effective massive remote learning is, especially when it was never planned and much of the population I serve is using borrowed devices, shared among multiple siblings, with no one at home who can help them with the technology, and often the academics as well. Or they have no wifi. Or a family member gets sick and they have to move in with a relative.

    Learning remotely is harder as well. When you are used to sitting at a table with your peers, working together on a project, doing paired reading, being able to ask the teacher for help throughout the school day and now it is you and a computer, even with Zoom, that is a huge difference. And not a better one.

    When I think of having to continue to work 10-12 hour days all summer, I can’t even fathom it. I just don’t think I could do it. For my own sanity, I would likely quit. There is already a severe shortage of special education teachers and it is unlikely they would find a replacement. I don’t think I am alone in feeling this way. All of the teachers at my school are feeling enormous pressure and stress.

    Of course there is going to be regression. It will happen all across the world, for the most part. I believe we need to look at all the possible ways of dealing with it and do it with a plan that is backed by research and best practices. It needs to be done in a way that is meaningful to both students and teachers and will ameliorate the effects of nationwide remote learning. Just doing more and longer remote learning is not the answer.

  3. To the Editor:

    While I think school in summer is the right idea, I am worried about a few of the author’s suggestions, such as making summer school mandatory instead of implementing a year-long school calendar and confusing access to technology and internet with access to high quality learning opportunities.

    Dr. Perry suggests implementing summer school and hiring a cadre of teachers for these positions, which seems like it would add requirements to an overburdened school system instead of addressing the problem of a long summer break. I think one way to stop summer learning loss is to end using the outdated, pre-industrial era, agrarian calendar and replace it with a year-long calendar. One popular model is the 45-15 model in which children are in school for 45 days and then have a three-week vacation. There are other configurations of days on to days off with stretches of school time followed by breaks. There are additional benefits to this type of calendar including time for students and teachers to recharge intermittently and opportunities to provide shorter, more frequent “summer school”-like learning opportunities for children who need additional support with specific topics.

    While I agree that a potential silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic is the provision of computers and wi-fi to children living in poverty, I do not want us to confuse access to technology with high quality education. By putting computers and wi-fi in children’s hands, we might make lessons available, but the technology will not remedy poverty or improve the quality of education provided to our most marginalized children. Furthermore, adding technology is not going to help our overworked teachers meet the needs of their students; providing more high quality professional support along with technology and new demands might get us started on a path to better outcomes for children.

    I agree with Dr. Perry that school should go on in the summer, but I wonder if he misses some critical points about how that should happen. Perry claims, “If districts continue to provide hardware and software to students, if municipalities and broadband companies can find ways to provide public, high-speed internet across the district, and if states and districts put more money into summer school to pay for teachers who want to teach in the summer months (that’s a lot of ifs), then school systems can address summer learning loss.” I think there are a few more ifs that must precede this list. If we can meet the most basic needs of our marginalized young people, if we can meaningfully support and develop our hardworking educators to meet the demands of the 21st century, if we can implement a modern school calendar, then school systems might start to address summer learning loss.

    Thank you,
    Anjali Deshpande, Ph.D.

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