Addressing learning gaps in summer school—or not

Research reveals that helping students catch up academically is not a priority in many school districts
By: | June 5, 2020
Photo by Kamila Cellary on UnsplashPhoto by Kamila Cellary on Unsplash

District leaders need not have assessment data to know that three months of not being in school has resulted in student learning loss. Will learning gaps be addressed this summer?

Not in a significant number of school districts analyzed by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), a national research center based at the University of Washington.

A review of summer learning and fall reopening plans in 100 school districts and 18 charter management organizations—representing all 50 states and serving 9 million students—revealed that less than half are offering summer school to elementary or middle school students. Summer school opportunities are more common for high schoolers and mainly focus on credit recovery. (Extended school year programs for students with individualized education plans were not part of the review.)

Summer school landscape (click infographic to enlarge)

Summer school landscape (click infographic to enlarge)

In a report titled “Districts Are Missing an Opportunity to Innovate as Most Take Traditional Approaches to Summer School,” researchers describe what school systems are doing this summer to confront inequities exacerbated by school closures and prioritize students in greatest need of academic, social and emotional support.

Students received minimal typical instruction this spring, so summer support is important, the report authors note. Districts are working hard—in collaboration with state agencies, labor unions and community partners “to untangle the complex logistical challenges” involved in a return to school in the fall. According to the report, summer presents a perfect time to pilot new strategies and try to rebuild something different, including new approaches to remote instruction, such as online interventions for small groups or enrichment programs.

“This summer presents a critical time to stem [learning] losses and begin to address social and emotional needs,” says Robin Lake, director of the CRPE. “It’s an opportunity to test what instructional strategies will best work next year and to train teachers in effective intervention and acceleration strategies.

Lake acknowledges that it’s a difficult time for administrators to get creative with summer programs. “Districts face unprecedented instructional and budget challenges,” she says. “No one knows the right path forward. We can’t dismiss those very real barriers.”

Still, the CRPE hasn’t uncovered much “urgency and innovation,” she adds. “We hope to see more in coming weeks.”

Click on the infographic image to see more data from the study.

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of DA.