Education Opinion

National Study on Summer Learning Highlights Professional Learning

By Learning Forward — August 13, 2013 3 min read
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The annual summer break from school, while fun for some, has critical consequences for many students. Each fall, on average, students perform one month behind where they performed in the spring, and the losses are worse, and cumulative, for low-income students. Over time, summer learning loss contributes substantially to the achievement gap we see between low-income students and their higher-income peers.

The Wallace Foundation and the RAND Corporation are studying summer learning programs in six urban school districts — Boston; Cincinnati; Dallas; Duval County, Fla.; Pittsburgh; and Rochester, New York. Our goal? To find out whether — and how — districts can operate high-quality summer learning programs that replace summer learning loss with lasting academic gains, particularly for the least-advantaged students.

Today, we released a report, Getting to Work on Summer Learning: Recommended Practices for Success, that shares lessons learned to date from the study districts’ experience implementing their programs. The report follows up Making Summer Count: How Summer Programs Can Boost Children’s Learning, released in 2011, which documented extensive research on summer learning loss and identified key features of effective summer learning programs.

These evidence-based lessons represent the best guidance currently available on what districts can do to run effective summer programs. We will continue to report out from this study in 2014 and beyond, including on the summer programs’ effects on student achievement.

Focus on Professional Learning
Research confirms the common sense idea that teaching quality has the largest school-based impact on student outcomes. That’s equally relevant during the summer.

The new report dedicates one section to teacher selection and professional learning, based on a review of research, evaluations, and observations from the study districts. First and foremost, it’s critical to hire the right teachers for the job, which means employing rigorous selection processes, taking school-year performance into consideration and hiring teachers with grade-level experience. Some districts in the study prioritized selection of teachers who were already familiar with the students from the school year.

But once hiring is complete, how can districts best promote teacher success? The report includes five recommendations focused on giving teachers sufficient professional learning and ongoing support. Here’s what we learned:

1) Familiarize teachers with the summer curriculum and how to teach it. Effective professional learning offers teachers the opportunity to practice delivering lessons in addition to reviewing the content itself. The study district where the highest proportion of teachers felt well-prepared to deliver the summer curriculum provided six hours of professional learning equally split between English language arts and math.

2) Help teachers tailor the curriculum for students with different aptitudes. Differentiation is challenging enough during the school year. With its compressed schedule, summer can present further challenges. Successful professional learning will include specific guidance — and practice — on differentiating instruction.

3) Provide ongoing support to implement the curriculum. Curriculum coaches can help summer teachers implement the curriculum and differentiate instruction. In the study districts, the most effective support came from coaches who worked at the host schools and had existing relationships with the principal in charge of the summer program, as well as many of the teachers.

4) Include all instructional support staff in academic sessions. Districts in the study did not include support staff in instructional learning, and RAND found that their support was limited to non-instructional tasks. Including support staff in instructional learning would prepare them to be able to work with small groups of students on differentiated instruction, or provide individual attention to struggling students.

5) Give teachers time to set up their classrooms and prepare. The researchers observed better use of instructional time at the start of the program when teachers had been previously provided scheduled, paid time to set up classrooms. Further, teachers indicated that they wanted the curriculum in hand early for their own review and preparation.

As summer winds down and a new school year begins, planning for 2014 summer learning programs will begin, ideally no later than January. The most successful districts will include plans — and ample time — for teacher learning and support.

Ann Stone
Senior research and evaluation officer, The Wallace Foundation

The opinions expressed in Learning Forward’s PD Watch are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.