Plugging the Summer Brain Drain

August 10th, 2011

Category: News

Average American students lose approximately one month of learning in both math and reading over summer vacation, a recent RAND Corporation study finds, with low-income students losing at least two months of reading knowledge while their upper-income peers actually gain a month. However, good summer programs – those with small classes, individualized attention, and parent involvement – can not only prevent summer learning loss but can actually contribute to closing the achievement gap.

Summer learning loss is not a new discovery; schools have known for decades that summer break can have a deleterious effect on student learning.  Few districts, however, have made significant headway in repurposing summer break – keeping school open during the summer is very costly, and it can be difficult to motivate students to meaningfully participate in summer programs.

Several school districts in Delaware allocated funds in their Race to the Top plans to start or expand summer learning programs, including:

  • Red Clay is allocating $2.5 million in local funds as part of their RTTT plan on an elementary summer enrichment program for high-needs students and a summer STEM program at high-needs middle schools.
  • Cape Henlopen is investing $135,500 over three years in summer acceleration programs, including a summer AP institute for 9th & 10th graders and a 2-4 week summer reading acceleration program for low-achieving middle school students.
  • Capital is spending $141,000 over two years of its RTTT budget on a summer intensive program for elementary and middle school students.

It is impossible to judge on paper the quality of a summer learning program.  Like so many Race to the Top promises, the quality of these programs lies in their execution.  Here are a few things we hope to see as schools roll out new and revamped summer academies:

  • Summer academies should be staffed exclusively by highly effective teachers.  Whether it’s an acceleration or remediation program, summer school students deserve teachers who have a record of investing students in their education and leading them to measurable academic gains.
  • Even the best curriculum cannot force students to want to learn.  For summer programs to be effective, schools need to work against the perception that summer school is punitive and meaningfully invest parents and students in the program.  This might require a value-add – for example, several districts nationwide have turned their summer schools into summer camps, with outdoor activities and field trips supplementing credit recovery or acceleration programs.
  • Summer academies need to be designed with an eye on sustainability. Will there be sufficient local funds to absorb the cost of summer programs once RTTT funding ends? Or will everything revert to pre-RTTT levels once the grant runs out? Ideally, districts will use RTTT funds as seed money for sustainable and meaningful summer learning initiatives that will inform future investments.

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Dan Hay



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