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Learning gaps can widen when school is out—here’s why summer learning has major potential for underserved students.

4 ways to address learning gaps for underserved students


Learning gaps can widen when school is out—here’s why summer learning has major potential

While it is now clear that the pandemic has had a significant impact on student learning – especially for historically underserved students – we are still discovering the most effective ways to help students recover. It turns out that summertime has the potential to be a big part of the solution for some of our most marginalized students. 

Recent findings from NWEA’s research team show the power of summer learning in changing academic trajectories for students. More specifically, the studies reveal that students with disabilities, rural students, and English learners make academic gains at rates equal to or faster than their peers during the academic year but experience greater learning loss when they’re out of school in the summer. The backsliding is so significant that it causes persistent or growing achievement gaps over the course of these students’ academic careers.

The lesson for pandemic recovery is clear. Summer learning provides an underutilized opportunity to help students regain lost ground due to COVID-19 and ensure that achievement gaps do not continue to widen. It should also be part of longer-term strategies to advance learning for historically underserved students. When summer learning is not part of the instructional strategy, the research suggests that it may lead to persistent opportunity gaps and diminished school-year gains over time.  

So, what can education leaders do to provide more summer learning opportunities for historically underserved students? Here are some ways, based on the research, that schools can use the summer months to transform educational outcomes:

1. Prioritize students with the highest needs and offer support for accessing summer learning programs

Historically underserved students face unique challenges when it comes to accessing summer learning programs. For example, transportation is a particularly big problem in rural districts. State and district leaders should consider covering the cost of transportation, and arranging for the logistics, to ensure students can attend programs. Different groups also need different things. Students with disabilities receive services during the school year, but lose some or all access to those over the summer. Finding ways to extend those services, and the connections of students with disabilities to their educational community when school is not in session is essential for their success.

2. Use data on student progress to determine eligibility for summer learning programs

Even now, when states and districts have access to unprecedentedfederal funds to support recovery, resources are not unlimited. The impact of the pandemic has varied widely across the country; even districts with similar student demographics have experienced widely different levels of unfinished learning. Thus, it is essential that educational leaders use data on student progress to understand their local context, identify those students that need the most support in recovery, and prioritize getting them evidence-based interventions to meet their specific needs.

3. Tailor summer learning plans to the specific needs of local students

Just as leaders must look to local data to identify students who need support, they should select interventions that the evidence shows will meet those specific needs. The repertoire of proven interventions and programs varies by age and subject, but an overwhelming through-line across effective programs is that they add instructional time for students. For example, high-dosage tutoring is one increasingly popular strategy to support students in recovery, and can run from the summer into the school year. Leaders should also continue to gather data on the effectiveness of interventions once they are deployed so they can scale the good ones and discontinue those that are less impactful.      

4. Offer high-quality  programs with smaller groups of students

Summer learning programs must be of sufficient length and quality – and engaging for students – so that they are effective in supporting student well-being and achievement.  According to RAND, summer learning opportunities should be at least five weeks to be effective, and students do better in smaller groups (15 or fewer). Summer programs are also more impactful when they are aligned to districts’ long-term academic goals, and include opportunities for enrichment, play, and peer-to-peer connections. It is also helpful to engage families throughout the summer as well as the school year, so that students and their communities understand that summer learning is part of a year-round strategy to ensure educational equity and excellence for all students.

Additional Resources for Educators:

https://www.nwea.org/blog/2022/lets-talk-about-summer-some-student-groups-lose-more-ground-when-school-is-out/

https://www.audacy.com/podcasts/kyw-newsradio-in-depth-229/summer-learning-loss-hits-some-students-harder-but-there-are-ways-to-help-1467441654

https://www.aera.net/Newsroom/The-Impact-of-Summer-Programs-on-Student-Mathematics-Achievement-A-Meta-Analysis

https://ccsso.org/blog/using-covid-relief-support-summer-learning-7-state-snapshot

https://annenberg.brown.edu/recovery/summer-learning-toolkit

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