COVID-19 and School Closures: Could Summer Help?

If there is one educational benefit of the otherwise dismal experience of closing virtually all of America’s schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is this: I’ll bet parents are developing a lot of respect for teachers. I’m hearing a lot about parents finding out that online lessons are no substitute for capable, in-person teachers.

Because of the essential health need to reduce contacts among students and school personnel, schools all over the U.S. have closed. School leaders are scrambling to provide on-line coursework. It is difficult everywhere to go from zero to online in a very short time, but in schools in high-poverty areas, where many or most students lack home computers or reliable internet access, it is well-nigh impossible. But even if every student had a working computer and internet access, there seems to be widespread use of computerized worksheets, and other uninspiring content. In some schools and districts, in which online work is already well used and computers are universally available, the situation is surely better, but even there, online all day every day is no substitute for in-person teaching. Very conscientious and self-motivated students, the kind who already use Khan Academy just for fun, are probably thriving, but such students constitute a small minority, even in the finest schools.

School closures are likely to extend into May, leaving little if any of the regular school year for things to return to normal. Two states, Kansas and Virginia, have already announced that schools will not re-open before the end of the year, and others will surely follow.

The Summer Solution

In light of the realities we face, I think most schools are struggling to teach all of their children during the school closures. Parents are doing their best, as are some students, but nationwide, trying to keep schools going as they always have, except online, is not a satisfying solution.

I have an alternative solution. It has two simple steps.

  1. As soon as feasible, declare schools to be on break. Instant vacation.
  2. When it is safe to open schools, do so. Hold an in-person two-month session, starting (let’s say) on June 1 and running through the end of July.

During the instant vacation, provide parents and students with a menu of engaging activities that are fun, engage students’ energies and curiosity, and optional. These could focus on science, social studies, writing, art, music, and other subjects often blog_4-2-20_masks_500x343given short shrift during the school year.  These would be facilitated by teachers; in my experience, every school and district has many teachers who are crazy about one or more topics that they rarely get to talk about in school.  Teachers may be Civil War reenactors, world travelers, art experts, amateur musicians, or published writers, even if those are not the topics they teach.  In three days, max, any school district could find extraordinary people with fierce passions for something they want to share with kids. Students might be given a choice of activities, and they might choose to do none at all. It’s vacation, after all. The reason to have these activities is to give students shut in at home useful and interesting things to do. I’m sure there are loads of great online activities already out there that are rarely used because of the lack of time for such activities in the regular school year. Imagine any of the following, facilitated by teachers who love these topics:

  • Online trips to faraway places or to periods of history
  • Online book clubs in which students could choose topics they’d like to read about and then discuss age-appropriate books on them with others from all over their school, district, or state.
  • Science clubs, in which students could explore topics of their choice in groups from all over. One interesting topic: epidemiology.  Science clubs could find out everything there is to know about space travel, or the science of music, or the science of sports.
  • Writer’s workshops, in which kids from all over could enroll in groups working on writing their own mystery stories, fantasy stories, sports stories, or biographies of famous people.  That’s how the Bronte sisters learned to write, shut in in small-town Yorkshire, surrounded by poverty and disease.  They wrote stories with and for each other, throughout their childhoods.
  • Art or music appreciation, history, or techniques
  • How students can get jobs and internships (in normal times)
  • Post-secondary options for secondary students

I think you get the idea. Trying to cover all the usual school subjects in the usual way, but online, is sure to be boring and ineffective for most students. But on vacation, shut in students could select learning activities to do not for a grade, not under pressure from parents or teachers, but to satisfy their own curiosity.

When the crisis is over, presumably in the summer, students could return to school and resume their usual lessons, with in-person teachers.  I’m sure there would be practical difficulties, but I’m willing to bet that this could work, perhaps in some places, perhaps in many. At least it seems worth a try!

Photo credit: zhizhou deng / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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Reading by Third Grade – Or Else

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Is it possible to legislate reading proficiency? An increasing number of states seem to think so. A recent article in the New York Times reported on laws in effect in 14 states (so far) requiring that third graders be reading at grade level or be retained. The article was about a six-week summer school program in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, for students at risk for retention. About 1,500 third graders are taking summer school, or one in eight of Charlotte’s third grade population.

The problem of education reform is not a lack of good ideas, but a lack of good ideas sensibly implemented. Ensuring that virtually all children read by third grade is an essential and attainable goal. Reading by third grade is indeed a key predictor of high school graduation. I understand and sympathize with the state legislators who passed these laws. They were justifiably impatient with the continuing failure of school systems to solve the early reading problem. Sad to say, however, the strategies being used in the states with mandatory retention laws are misguided.

First, as the article notes, most of the summer school children are far behind, and six weeks of summer school will not bring them to grade level. Every educator knows that the struggling children needed help from pre-kindergarten to grade 3, not just summer school at the end of three years of failure. Other than Florida, the original mandatory retention state, other states have provided few resources to help children meet the standards for promotion.

Second, retention is rarely an effective or necessary policy. It looks good for a while because the retained children are a year older than their (new) classmates. For example, a ten-year-old in fourth grade immediately gains in apparent performance if transferred to the third grade — the score doesn’t change, but the reference group does. However, these apparent benefits wear off in a few years. This result has been found in many studies over the years, and the article reported that Florida, which has had a mandatory retention policy since 2002, reported retained children performing better than similar (but younger) non-retained children for several years, but by eighth grade the differences had faded away.

Third, both summer school and retention are incredibly expensive solutions. Retention means giving children one more year of elementary school, at a cost of roughly $10,000 per child, using national average per-pupil costs. Summer school is also an expensive solution, as it requires six more weeks to employ teachers and keep schools open. Further, the evidence for the effectiveness of summer school is weak.

Finally, and most importantly, there are much more effective strategies for ensuring that virtually all children are reading by third grade. In fact, I counted 28 separate elementary reading programs with data accepted by the What Works Clearinghouse. These programs all meet the U. S. Department of Education’s EDGAR standards for “strong” or “moderate” evidence of effectiveness. All are being actively disseminated today. The programs include one-to-one tutoring by teachers or paraprofessionals, one-to-small-group programs, classroom programs, technology approaches, and whole-school reform approaches, including our Success for All program. There were no summer school or after school programs that made the list.

Besides their evidence of effectiveness, these approaches have several important benefits. They are designed to be replicated and are ready to go. Also, they use staff already in the school, which both adds greatly to cost-effectiveness and improves the skills of the participating staff for all aspects of their jobs.

Amazingly, there are states during difficult economic times that are willing to spend an additional $10,000 per child to retain thousands of children, not to mention costs of summer school and other last-minute remediation. Wouldn’t it make more sense to use these resources instead on proven and replicable approaches that could actually solve the problem on a scale that would matter? Early reading is perhaps the one area in which proven programs of all sorts are most available. Given the well-founded concern about third grade reading, you’d imagine that policymakers would be rushing to implement proven approaches. But the reality is otherwise.

Summer: The Missing Link in Education Reform

By Gary Huggins, Chief Executive Officer, National Summer Learning Association

Research has long documented the phenomenon of summer learning loss. Over the three-month summer vacation, children forget some of what they have learned during the previous school year. It’s an unfortunate, unintended consequence of the ideal of a lazy, fun-filled summer.

Most youth lose about two months in grade equivalents in math computational skills over the summer. Low-income youth lose more than two months in reading achievement while their middle-income peers make slight gains.

Worse, these losses are cumulative, contributing to a widening achievement gap. A study by Johns Hopkins University’s Karl Alexander found that summer learning loss in the elementary school years results in low-income students being as much as 2.5 years behind their higher-income peers by the end of 5th grade. It also leads to placement in less rigorous high school courses, higher high school dropout rates, and lower college attendance. Further, when students lose hard-won skills over the summer, teachers waste time re-teaching at the beginning of every school year.

The learning losses, and the wasted time, are preventable.

There is evidence that students who attend high-quality summer programs can avoid summer losses, but what makes a high-quality program? Not surprisingly, such programs offer strong, individualized instruction, have parents who are involved, and feature small class sizes and engaging activities, according to the RAND Corporation’s 2011 report Making Summer Count: How Summer Programs Can Boost Children’s Learning. They’re typically full-day programs that run from five to six weeks.

There are examples of successful summer learning programs in school districts and communities throughout the country. These high-quality programs effectively blend academics and enrichment activities to help students avoid learning losses, and even experience gains. These have nothing in common with the punitive summer schools I recall from my childhood. Rather, this new vision for summer school has kids reading in the morning and visiting museums in the afternoon. Math lessons are followed by art and music – subjects often squeezed out of the strained school day.

Outcomes are impressive. As part of the Smarter Summers initiative the National Summer Learning Association launched in 10 cities last year with support from the Walmart Foundation, middle school students attending Summer Advantage USA in Chicago and Indianapolis gained an average of 2.1 months in grade equivalents in literacy and math skills.

In Oakland, Calif., more than half of 1,000 elementary students who attended a summer program were found by the district to be performing at or above the benchmark in English/language arts scores after the program, compared with 36 percent in the spring. In Baltimore’s expanded summer learning program, elementary school students registered double-digit percentage-point gains in language arts and math tests from spring to fall 2010. Recently, Baltimore City Schools CEO Andres Alonso said that summer school is no longer just for children who are failing, but an important part of his strategy for helping all students to succeed.

Research is now underway on wide scale implementation and on sustained gains. The reality is that if we ever hope to close the persistent academic achievement gap, districts need to consider summer learning as part of their school improvement strategies. Summer school shouldn’t be seen as punitive, and shouldn’t be the first sacrifice in a tight budget year. It’s a link in the chain that’s been broken for far too long.