Summer school as we’ve traditionally known it hasn’t worked well for a long time, especially from an equity standpoint, but we all know that change tends to come slowly to educational institutions. I would submit that in 2022, after two years of extraordinary learning loss, a transformation shouldn’t wait any longer.
Today’s students have different summer learning needs, and we have better tools and methods to teach them. It’s time to start using them.
The old model of summer classes in school buildings every day from 9 a.m. to noon stopped being convenient decades ago, when stay-at-home parenting stopped being the norm. Even if families manage to find transportation for their kids to and from school at those hours, there remains the question of filling in the remaining hours with part-time child care — never a cost-effective option even when it is available.
Traditional summer school doesn’t work that well on the provider’s end, either. Teachers are exhausted from the stresses of hybrid instruction and contentious, ever-changing health rules, making summer-school staffing more of a challenge than ever.
But the need is urgent and supplemental instruction in the summer needs to be more effective than it ever has been. An analysis by the consulting firm McKinsey found that at the end of the 2020-21 school year, elementary-aged students were months behind where students of like age had been before the pandemic — an average of four months further behind in reading and five months in math.
Within those averages, stubborn achievement gaps between racial and income groups have expanded, meaning the children who are least able to access traditional summer school are the ones who need it most.
For many districts, the solution to this dual challenge — urgent need and lack of convenient access — will lie not in a sleepy summer morning classroom, but in high-dosage tutoring: frequent, individualized instruction, face-to-face, between a teacher (the same one every time) and no more than three students.
The model is equally engaging in person or remotely, provided that real-time audio and video allow face-to-face interaction. The opportunity to provide instruction remotely makes it far more likely that a district’s own teachers will be interested in participating and that students can attend consistently. It also has the significant benefit of giving tutored students a meaningful relationship with a caring adult.
To maximize the gains from high-dosage tutoring over the summer, it’s important to align the tutoring content with a school’s curriculum, to best prepare students to hit the ground running in the fall. Regaining lost ground is especially important in key transition years — second grade to third, fifth to sixth and eighth to ninth. Districts that see success with high-dosage tutoring in the summer will have a head start on making the model part of their regular academic support during the school year.
The extra hurdles put in front of children by the pandemic are daunting, and overcoming them will require smart choices on the part of educational institutions. But the options available are encouraging. Districts across the country are using ESSER funding to support tutoring and other interventions. And recently, a consortium of local, state and federal education leaders, along with philanthropists and researchers, joined to launch Accelerate, a nonprofit initiative that will work to make high-quality tutoring a reality in public schools.
We already have research telling us what types of interventions are most effective, thanks to the $1.7 billion in ESSER funding already invested in tutoring and math coaching. Accelerate has the potential to build on that, by supporting further innovation and research to provide more proven options. Equally important, the initiative plans to build political support at the state and national levels to make high-dosage tutoring a permanent feature of American public education — in summer school and beyond.
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