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Summer school is a hot topic right now, for good reason.

We know that remote instruction and disrupted hybrid learning during the pandemic have led to enormous learning loss, particularly for low-income students and students with learning disabilities and differences.

Last year, 28 percent of kindergarten students were “well below benchmark” (the lowest category) in early literacy skills. This year, it was 47 percent — a 68 percent increase that disproportionately impacted Black and Hispanic students, according to a report by Amplify, a national K-8 curriculum and assessment company that analyzed data from 400,000 students across 1,400 schools over the last two years.

This year has also highlighted another educational challenge: the lack of effective literacy instruction in many of our K-2 grade classrooms. With the current usual methods of teaching children to read, about two-thirds of young people fail to reach grade-level benchmarks. Many students, including but not limited to students with dyslexia, need one-on-one, research- and evidence-based instruction, and schools need well-trained, experienced teachers who have the necessary skills to give students a fighting chance to catch up. This kind of scientifically backed instruction is often neglected due to long-standing opinions about how reading should be taught — with the opinion-based curriculum that only works for certain students — leading to the inequities demonstrated by the Amplify report.  

Why not use summer camp or summer school to address both Covid learning loss and ineffective instruction? Summer schools can be enriched to provide students with one-on-one instruction and to give teachers and university education majors the opportunity to learn and develop highly effective teaching methods.

Thanks to professor Robert Slavin’s research at Johns Hopkins University, we know that one-on-one tutoring using an evidence-based program is a quick, effective way to increase students’ literacy. This research also strengthens the argument that summer is a sufficient block of time to make real progress if the right form of instruction is provided.

Already, a small-scale effort is underway in New York City. One of the authors of this op-ed, Dr. Katharine Pace Miles, had all of her graduate and undergraduate students at Brooklyn College, CUNY, receive training in Reading Rescue, a research and evidence-based program that helps young readers. As part of their coursework, the university students tutored struggling first and second grade readers. Teacher candidates were observed and coached along the way; the results have been powerful for both the children and the university students.

Well-established summer programs for dyslexic students can also serve as models for how to attack the literacy crisis. For example, Camp Dunnabeck, in rural Connecticut, works with the Kildonan Teacher Training Institute to train teachers in evidence-based reading instruction for the first two weeks of summer. Most of the day involves social-emotional learning, arts and sports, but each day the students also get an hour of tutoring and an hour of supported study hall — using the kind of targeted, explicit and systematic literacy instruction that they should have received in ample amounts during the school year.

Last year, 28 percent of kindergarten students were “well below benchmark” (the lowest category) in early literacy skills. This year, it was 47 percent.

While the camp above is ideal, the model is beyond the economic reach of most families and unrealistic for districts to replicate; however, the mission to provide highly effective literacy tutoring embedded in a summer camp model is achievable in public urban programs.

Public day camps and those run by community-based organizations offer plenty of time to provide both literacy tutoring and enrichment. Many camps already focus on arts, STEM, exercise, sports and social-emotional learning and could carve out time for one-on-one tutoring and a supported study hall.

Teachers, university teacher candidates and school staff could receive scholarships to be trained in evidence-based programs, and then be paid to provide the one-on-one tutoring for students in need.

Related: 5 ways schools hope to fight Covid-19 learning loss

Bringing programs like Reading Rescue to large numbers of struggling readers as part of quality summer camps will require political will, not just from those controlling the purse strings, but from school leaders and teachers who continue to use the ineffective instructional methods that did not meet the needs of all emerging readers prior to Covid and certainly will not make up for the learning loss caused by the pandemic.

That loss, and the eventual economic costs due to this academic catastrophe, could be somewhat mitigated by relatively inexpensive changes to summer schools and camps to include proven tutoring for their participants.

Gallup’s Jonathan Rothwell reports that the U.S. loses $2.2 trillion a year due to low levels of literacy. The Boston Consulting Group published a white paper estimating that dyslexia would cost the state of California $12 billion in 2020 alone — and that the state could see an 800 to 2000 percent return on investment by screening for dyslexia and training teachers to teach reading more effectively.

Instead, we see a dyslexia-to-prison pipeline — studies of at least two prison systems have found strong evidence of dyslexia among roughly 50 percent of prisoners. Some were never taught to read, and many more lost out on reading due to poor instruction. That’s a loss of human potential and an equity issue of the highest magnitude that will only be exacerbated by the pandemic.

It’s time to face this literacy loss head-on. One important step is to take advantage of summer 2021 and prepare for summers in the future to support students in need of literacy intervention and teachers in need of training.

Katharine Pace Miles, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of early childhood education, specializing in the development and instruction of early literacy, at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.

Debbie Meyer is a parent activist and an A’lelia Bundles Community Scholar at Columbia University. She is also a board member of the Dyslexia Alliance for Black Children.

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

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