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Summer is officially here — and for many students, that means summer school. But summer programs don’t come with the same stigma that they used to. These days, districts are offering credit recovery, high impact tutoring in math and literacy, project-based learning, and summer bridge programming. This means summer school may just be the key to unlocking students’ unfinished learning during the pandemic. In other words, in addition to playing catch during the break, students can catch up on their academics.

For the past three years, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds have provided a temporary financial boost for essential education initiatives, such as summer programs, in school districts throughout the country. An unprecedented amount of money — nearly $125 billion — was allocated in 2021 to aid school districts in navigating the complexities of educating students during and after the pandemic, and to support with implementing strategies to address unfinished learning, otherwise known as learning loss, as the top priority. But to do that costs money — and ESSER money is drying up.

Research by EdTrust highlights three key strategies that are proven to boost student learning and set children on the right path of meeting high academic standards:

  1. Targeted tutoring
  2. Expanded learning time
  3. Teachers building strong relationships with their students

By using these strategies over the course of the pandemic, teachers have effectively been able to equitably address unfinished learning. And by focusing on individualized learning plans, using high-quality curricula, and dedicating resources to lower student-to-teacher ratios, school leaders have been able to cultivate supportive and engaging learning environments to foster academic growth.

Summer school is a perfect opportunity to see the impact and use of these strategies. As such, The Wallace Foundation commissioned The RAND Corporation to conduct a survey of school districts that offered summer programming in 2023 to address unfinished learning. The survey revealed that 81% of districts offered summer programs for elementary and secondary grade levels, including 100% of urban school districts serving majority students of color. The research uncovered several promising practices, including teachers acting as liaisons between families and schools, which helped boost enrollment in summer programs.

Other key strategies were using evidence-based approaches that integrated academics with enrichment, which, as noted, helped improve attendance, and 98% of districts hired local teachers who knew their students well, which allowed them to cultivate those relationships to serve their students well in summer programs. For summer programming, most districts prioritized enrollment of students with unfinished learning, which was effective in some places and not in others.

The study also uncovered key areas of improvement for participating school districts. Districts were encouraged to consider facilitating summer programs beyond four weeks to provide enough academic instructional hours for academic benefits. Secondly, researchers recommended school districts begin plans for summer learning earlier in the academic year. This additional time could allow districts to establish clear plans around communication, staffing, and planning, potentially leading to higher-quality summer programs.

Beyond the lessons learned from EdTrust and RAND, there are school districts across the country that have seen success with other strategies. Promising ideas include technology investments, family engagement, teacher capacity-building through professional development, increased staffing, new co-teaching models, mental health supports, and after-school programming.

It is crucial to note that many of the districts experiencing success in closing gaps in unfinished learning have relied heavily on pandemic relief-related funding streams. Unfortunately, ESSER funds are set to expire September 30th, raising concerns about sustaining and building on the progress made. Our nation’s students are more than worth the investment, and state legislators should collaborate closely with their education offices to evaluate current spending practices and identify long-standing inequitable and ineffective approaches. By reallocating resources toward the districts and schools most in need and toward proven evidence-based education strategies, states can ensure a more sustainable and impactful investment in the future academic success of all students.

In addition to the work that states and districts should do to sustain promising practices, it is imperative for the federal government to increase Title I investments to give school districts serving students from low-income backgrounds the resources they need to meet students’ needs, especially given the long-lasting impact of the pandemic. School districts have clearly demonstrated the need for continued financial support to sustain academic growth and improvement, particularly in addressing learning disparities for students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and students with disabilities. These underserved student populations are the ones who stand to benefit the most from funding that supports a high-quality education, during the traditional school day and beyond. The federal government can play a crucial role in supporting the ongoing efforts to enhance educational opportunities and outcomes for all students, especially those who bear the brunt of systemic flaws within our school systems that result in racial, social, and economic inequalities.

Summer programs serve as a viable solution for addressing the challenges of unfinished learning exacerbated by the pandemic. As school leaders continue to navigate the challenging education landscape, they must recognize the value of investing in evidence-based summer programming as a trusted vehicle to drive student success. By continuing to prioritize and invest in summer initiatives, states and school districts will be able to ensure that every student has what they need to thrive and achieve their academic potential.