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Summer Learning Loss Doesn't Have to Be an Achievement Gap!

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Frederick Brown

For many teachers across the country, the months of August and September mark the beginning of a new school year. When I think back to my days as an elementary teacher, I remember spending these first few weeks re-teaching many of the things I felt my students should have already known. I didn't know the proper term for it back then, but I was basically battling against summer learning loss. Now I know it doesn't have to be this way at the start of each school year.

According to research commissioned by the Wallace Foundation and authored by RAND, on average, students lose skills over the summer. The 2011 report, titled Making Summer Count: How Summer Programs Can Boost Children's Learning, goes on to remind us that summer learning loss disproportionately affects low-income students. While these young children are falling behind, their higher-income counterparts often gain during the summer. In essence, the achievement gap widens before the new school year even begins!

While painting a vivid picture of the impact of summer learning loss, the RAND study also provides rays of hope. It reminds us that effective summer learning programs have the potential to not only mitigate the loss but even lead to achievement gains. Effective programs, according to the study, tend to have individualized instruction, parental involvement, and small class sizes. We're not talking traditional summer school programs that rehash all the same content in the same ways in a condensed period of time, but highly engaging activities for children that challenge and truly engage them.

In an updated study, Getting to Work on Summer Learning: Recommended Practices for Success, RAND reviewed summer learning programs in six districts: Boston, Cincinnati, Dallas, Duval County (FL), Pittsburgh, and Rochester. These districts have committed to offering summer programs for large numbers of low-income students. Because NOW is the time to start thinking about next summer, I encourage a look at this report. It offers specific recommendations in planning, curriculum and instruction, teacher selection and training, enrichment activities, attendance, time on task, and program cost and funding. For example, with regard to teacher selection and professional learning, the report emphasized the importance of hiring effective teachers and giving them the ongoing support they need. The report suggests it is helpful to:

  • Familiarize teachers with the summer curriculum and how to teach it.

  • Help teachers tailor the curriculum for students with different aptitudes.

  • Provide ongoing support to implement the curriculum.

  • Include all instructional support staff in academic training sessions.

  • Give teachers time to set up their classrooms in advance.

During Learning Forward's annual conference in Dallas, Catherine Augustine from Rand and Caterina Leone-Mannino from Rochester City Schools will deliver a thought-leader session on this important issue. In addition to sharing why we need to pay attention to summer learning, they'll discuss how some districts are using summer as the ideal professional learning venue, testing new classroom strategies including implementing Common Core standards.

Those of us who have taught know it can be one tough job. Imagine a scenario where it became just a little easier because of what happened in the summer. School and district leaders, I strongly encourage you look at all we're learning about summer learning loss and take the steps that will help combat it. Our children deserve it and our teachers will thank you...especially this time of year!

Frederick Brown
Director of Strategy and Development
Learning Forward

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