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Summer school: We can’t give students more of the same

course correction 21st century skills

Why do we have summer school?

For most school systems, summer school is designed to meet unfilled learning needs for students, especially those who do not have access to summer educational opportunities because of economic conditions. But summer programs are more than that. They are also a great opportunity to better prepare all students for a successful future.

Many summer programs emerged as a way to improve test score results and school designations of performance as a result of NCLB and the metrics of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Other summer school programs fulfilled grade-level policy and curricular requirements for promoting students or for credit recovery to increase graduation rates at the secondary level.  

Still more summer programs were designed based on the research on learning loss. Districts wanted to better position students to start the next school year without the loss of foundational knowledge and skills, especially in mathematics, reading, and language arts. Other summer programs have evolved to provide enrichment for students.

These are all legitimate reasons to run summer programs. But, there are two aspects of these programs that educational leaders cannot condone:

1) Using summer school to compensate for ineffective instruction during the school year; and

2) Ignoring the research on summer loss and summer school effectiveness in a student’s learning journey.

According to a Wallace report on Making Summer School Count, research indicates that:

“On average, students lose skills over the summer, particularly in mathematics. However, not all students experience “average” losses, and summer learning loss disproportionately affects low-income students. Low-income students lose substantial ground in reading during the summer, while their higher-income peers often gain. Most disturbing is that it appears that summer learning loss is cumulative and that, over time, these periods of differential learning rates between low-income and higher-income students contribute substantially to the achievement gap in reading. It may be that efforts to close the achievement gap during the school year alone will be unsuccessful.”

Unfortunately, not every summer program lives up to the mission of preventing summer slide or enriching students.

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On reflection on my past practices as a district school leader and superintendent, I believe we missed opportunities to support the success of students, especially those challenged by the conditions of poverty and social trauma. I spent many days walking through summer school classrooms, seeing students sitting in neat rows, doing the same work they did during the school year. We were hoping students would acquire the knowledge needed to pass the retest on state standardized tests; or meet (through attendance) the summer school policy requirements to be promoted to the next grade.

While some students passed the state retest, they continued to struggle, especially as new standards were designed to assess higher-order thinking skills. For promotion, simply attending summer school met the requirement, but often they moved on without the skills, knowledge, and most importantly, the desire needed to be successful in school.

What should I have done differently? First and foremost, summer school should not be about replicating the experiences students have had during the year. I am reminded how the late Dr. William Glasser described this notion by using an example of trailering your boat on the beach:

“You back your boat trailer into the shallow water on a beach. Once the boat is secured, on the trailer, you start your car, put it in gear and proceed to get back onto the road surface. However, in most cases you here this ZEEES when you hit the gas – the wheels are spinning in the sand and you are stuck. Most at that point hit the gas harder. The boat then goes ZEEEEEEEEEES with a much louder sound and the wheels go deeper into the sand. In desperation, the driver hits the gas even harder until the wheels are fully buried and the frame of boat trailer is resting in the sand. Now you need a tow truck!”

The meta-message for school leaders is this: We can no longer afford to be stuck in the sand when designing summer school programs.

What can we do differently? I recommend we start with a different set of principles when designing summer school programs and activities. What if we said that our summer school design is not based solely on remediating mathematics and Language Arts but rather on:

  • Developing a curiosity for learning
  • Promoting and fostering the unique interest of each student
  • Designing activities that support creativity and innovation
  • Employing activities where core skills and knowledge in subject areas are applied to student experiences
  • Expanding opportunities for student collaboration and communication

Summer Matters identified six key elements in a summer school checklist that should be used for parents. What if these same elements were used by school leaders and teachers?

Broaden youth horizons by exposing them to new adventures, skills, and ideas such as a nature walk, new computer programs, museum visits, or live performances.

Include a wide variety of activities, such as reading, writing, math, science, arts, and public service projects, in ways that are fun and engaging.

Help kids build mastery by improving their skills at something they enjoy and care about, such as creating a neighborhood garden, writing a healthy snacks cookbook, or operating a robot.

Foster cooperative learning by working with their friends on team projects and group activities such as a neighborhood clean-up, group presentation, or canned food drive.

Promote healthy habits by providing nutritious food, physical recreation, and outdoor activities.

Run programs for at least one month to give youth enough time to benefit from their summer learning experiences.

How different would that look in your system? Imagine students entering the new year primed by a very different learning experience–one that emerged from a refreshing approach for different outcomes in summer school.

What kind of summer programs does your school or district have in place? Does this new look at summer school give you ideas for the future? Tell us in the comments.

About the Author

Dr. Philip D. Lanoue
Dr. Philip D. Lanoue is a nationally renowned education leader. He is the co-author of the new book The Emerging Work of Today’s Superintendent: Leading Schools and Communities to Educate all Children and the 2015 AASA National Superintendent of the Year. For more about Dr. Lanoue visit https://pdlconsultants.com.

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