This Summer Must Be a Season of Learning

As students fall further behind academic expectations as a result of pandemic disruptions, we must expand summer learning opportunities and focus on those skills students need most.

By Dr.Gene Kerns

The latest How Kids Are Performing report confirms that the pandemic’s profoundly disruptive effect on education continues to be felt today. Student performance during the second year of the pandemic was lower than during the first year, which was itself much lower than normal grade-level expectations. 

And it’s no surprise. Students simply need more instructional time to continue to build momentum and growth in their learning—and some of that time will come during the summer.

Summer slide, that perennial bugaboo of educators, is untenable given where students are. The slowdown we’ve tolerated for years just isn’t acceptable in the post-pandemic world.

What Do We Know about Summer Slide?

Many of our beliefs about the summer slide are based on the findings of the “Beginning School Study.” Launched in the fall of 1982, this study tracked 838 first graders in Baltimore City Public Schools for the next two decades, and has formed the basis of many strongly held beliefs about summer learning loss ever since. The data have been discussed in Time Magazine and The Economist, and featured in well-known books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.

But that study, which found that low-income students lost an average of two months of learning over the summer, compared to a one-month average gain by their wealthier peers, is now nearly 20 years old. It used a relatively small sample size from a single district, and measured students’ progress using assessment tools that we would consider outdated today. Should today’s educators consider its results relevant?

Fortunately, science marches on, and other researchers have attempted to reproduce the findings of the “Beginning School Study.” While the study found major learning losses connected with summer breaks, Paul von Hippel of the University of Texas has found that students only slid back a couple months. A team at the Early Childhood Longitudinal Studies (ECLS) Program found only minimal evidence of a summer slide.

Von Hippel’s summary of the conflicting results is clarifying. Despite the variance as to the scale of the impact, some findings are consistent across the three analyses. Most notably, as von Hippel states, “Nearly all children, no matter how advantaged, learn much more slowly during summer vacations than they do during the school year.” This finding allows us to see the summer as a unique opportunity.

How so? If educators can help the students who need it most to recover learning throughout the summer, they can begin catching up to their peers, shrinking achievement gaps along the way.

Where Are Students Right Now?

So what do we know about how students are performing right now? Key findings from the latest How Kids Are Performing report include:

  • Performance: Overall, students are performing lower in 2021–2022 compared to 2020–2021, suggesting that the pandemic continues to have a compounding effect on student achievement.
  • Growth: Fall-to-winter growth in 2021–2022 was stronger than growth during the same period last year, although it remains below typical growth in most grade levels.
  • Pre-readers: The report contains concerning results for pre-readers in grade 1, where school disruptions may have interrupted the development of foundational literacy skills.

In short, the youngest students this year are much further behind than the youngest students last year. The older kids are still further behind than they were last year, but the pandemic’s year two impact does not seem to be compounding for them to the same degree as it is for younger learners.

How to Accelerate Summer Learning

The key to helping students make the most of summer learning can be found in the reasons those younger students are continuing to struggle more. Like all the other students, they suffered an initial impact from the loss of instructional time. But because they were building their foundational skills in that first year, they had a weaker foundation upon which to build the next year. That’s a big problem, because foundational learning in reading and mathematics follows a non-negotiable progression of skills. Students can’t sound out even simple words if they can’t recognize letters, for example.

Fortunately, not all skills are equally critical to student progression. While a student may need to be able to recognize letters to read, they do not need to know how to alphabetize words to read. It’s helpful in many ways, but it is unlikely to prevent a child from continuing to develop their literacy skills.

Those skills that are absolutely critical to student understanding, and are non-negotiable prerequisites to skills they will be asked to master in future grades, are what I refer to as Focus Skills. Some of the highest numbers of Focus Skills are found in kindergarten and first grade, which is exactly why the second year of the pandemic impacted our youngest students the most.  Focus Skills show us exactly where to concentrate our efforts to bring students back up to speed and prepare them to tackle grade-level material.

Schools have many options to provide summer learning: formal summer school, enrichment programs, or independent summer learning. It can be one or all, but it can’t be none. If any summer program is going to be effective, it must focus not just on what students missed, but what they need in order to move forward. Today’s students can’t afford much time away from instruction, and they need their educators to make the most of the precious time they have.

Dr. Gene Kerns (@GeneKerns) is the chief academic officer at Renaissance. He is a third-generation educator and has served as a public-school teacher, adjunct faculty member, professional development trainer, district supervisor of academic services, and academic advisor at one of the nation’s top edtech companies. He has trained and consulted internationally and is the co-author of three books. He can be reached at [email protected].

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