School & District Management

Districts Eye Summer and Beyond to Recoup Learning Losses. Here’s What 3 Have on Tap

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 11, 2021 8 min read
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In a few short months, school will be out of session. Or will it?

With the weather warming up and—cross your fingers—an increasing rate of COVID-19 vaccination nationwide, most school leaders expect the 2021-22 school year will be largely in person. Now they’re planning supports for students to make up for the harmful academic and social impacts of the last year.

Among the ideas: increasing summer learning opportunities and other ways of extending learning time.

In theory, school districts nationwide will have much more funding than they usually do to spend on these efforts. The Biden Administration’s COVID-19 recovery bill, narrowly approved by the Congress this week, directs more than $122 billion to states and school districts. Districts must spend at least a fifth of their share to address learning loss.

The law specifically name-checks summer learning, extended-day programs, comprehensive after-school programs, and extended school-year programs as evidence-based approaches to try—even as mounting research suggests that it’s a fifth strategy, sustained tutoring programs integrated into the regular school day, that seems to produce the largest results.

In practice, many other factors are playing into district leaders’ decisions. For one, money on paper is not money in hand: Some districts have yet to see their cut of the $54 billion for schools provided in the COVID relief bill passed late last December, let alone from the newest one.

Budgets, federal aid, state legislation are shaping districts’ planning process

Much will depend on each state’s funding picture, too—whether, for example, states will continue to “hold harmless” districts’ funding even in the face of potentially large enrollment declines in the early grades. (Texas and Florida are among the large states that didn’t penalize districts for lower enrollment in the 2020-21 school year, but are now reconsidering those policies.)

Finally, in statehouses nationwide, state leaders are considering bills that could either give a boost to districts’ efforts—or tie their hands. In North Carolina, a bill that would mandate that all districts provide 30 days of summer learning has passed one chamber.

There’s a trifecta of challenges to putting together good extended-learning programs, say experts who have studied them: encouraging attendance, avoiding the stigma that can attach to students who are prioritized for extra services, and ensuring the teaching is focused—not more of what students got during the school year.

“A number of programs spend quite a lot of money keeping schools open, and having teachers lead a group of 10 the same way they would have taught a group of 30,” noted Robert Slavin, a Johns Hopkins University professor and the director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education. “You can see how much fun that would be for kids who aren’t playing outside and didn’t do well with that kind of instruction in the first place.”

Still, Slavin said, “I think it would be foolish to waste this particular summer, if COVID is diminishing, not to use it, even though as a main reform it’s not the first thing you would go to.”

For Catherine Augustine, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corp. who has studied summer and out-of-school learning, the key is carefully planning the goals and backmapping the curriculum to match.

“One of the things we walked away with after looking at all types of summer programs is that programs have to be intentionally designed to meet their goals,” she said. “Be really clear about what you want to accomplish in this summer program—you want students to do better in math. Great. In what? What aspect of it? What are they struggling with?”

A look at what three districts are considering

Education Week spoke to several districts that are beginning to craft recovery plans for the summer and fall. Their insights, in general, mirror the researchers’: Whatever happens during extra learning time will need to look different from regular teaching. It should be in a smaller group or with a teacher who has a strong track record, and it should be responsive to the specific needs of each student.

It should include some attention to students’ social-emotional needs and to making the programming enticing. And, they said, it shouldn’t merely repeat the same courses that were offered in the spring.

The Ector County, Texas, school district has added 30 additional days to the end of the 2020-21 school calendar for all K-5 students and for some secondary students. What will be taught in those extra days will differ from the rest of the school year, said Scott Muri, the district’s superintendent

“They need more time with educators; they need more time in learning. But time has to be equated with effective practices,” he said. “Simply more time doing the same old strategies and ineffective work is meaningless for children.”

For one, the district plans to make use of a model developed by the N.C.-based nonprofit Public Impact to increase the number of students who have access to the district’s strongest teachers, identified based on test scores, evaluations, and other factors. Those teachers will be supported by 4th and 5th year college seniors who are education majors as part of a paid internship.

In general, Muri said, the curriculum will also be more flexible. Students will initially be grouped based on year-end benchmark testing, and teachers will be permitted to regroup them as needed; they may even create some classes that span multiple age groups.

[Students] need more time with educators; they need more time in learning. But time has to be equated with effective practices.

The district is still mulling over its approach to secondary students, but right now it envisions a model that uses a competency-based approach centered on what standards a student needs to demonstrate by the end of the school year. Some students might need two weeks to show they’ve mastered Algebra 1 content; others might need all 30 days.

Muri estimates that the elementary portion of extended learning will cost about $1,650 for each K-5 student.

The Orange County, Fla., district will be overhauling its summer learning program and coupling it with new on-demand supports for students it’s already put into place.

Florida mandated that schools maintain in-person learning for this school year, and about 60 percent of students attend in person. District leaders have found that academic regression appears to be concentrated among its LaunchEd students—those attending school remotely but who are not part of the state or district virtual school.

So, this semester, Orange County has piloted a form of virtual tutoring provided by teachers who are on leave for health reasons. It’s offered at specific times during the week for elementary students. For secondary students, the tutoring is semi-”on demand”: They can attend virtual sessions before or after school, and they can also access a menu of tutoring times and subjects for help, said Maria Vazquez, the district’s deputy superintendent.

Summer school will also be expanded to about a quarter of students, up from the usual 10 percent to 12 percent. In the past, Vazquez said, summer learning operated only four days a week and only in some grade levels, and was reserved for students who were significantly below grade level, as measured by local tests and grades—usually, those who needed to retake a course or credit, or didn’t meet the state’s 3rd grade reading benchmark.

This year, it’s extending eligibility to students who were below grade level but passed, expanding summer school to five days a week from four, and offering it for all grades from K-12 in two four-week blocks. Some students will need just one summer session; others will be encouraged to attend both. The curriculum will be focused on small group work and informed by district data.

“The pandemic has really forced us to rethink how we use time, space, and resources, and the LaunchEd tutoring and expansion of summer school is just one example for the next school year,” Vazquez said. “They will look very different from how they’ve done in the past.”

She estimates that the summer effort will cost the district $38 million in sum.

Rather than adding extra time at the back end of the current school year, the San Antonio district will infuse its 30 extra days throughout next year’s school calendar. It will attach three weeks to the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, two weeks at the end of it, plus reserve a week in January that can be used for additional supports and interventions. It’s also keeping open the possibility for Saturday schooling, said Superintendent Pedro Martinez.

In part, those plans are a reflection of the current logistics: Only about 40 percent of the district’s students are currently attending in person. Martinez believes more parents and students will feel safer returning to in-person learning as vaccination rates rise.

Second, the plan focuses on what can be done during the school year out of a sense that many summer programs haven’t been as effective as other approaches.

“I’ve had it in every district I’ve been in, and we do have some successes, but we always have a bigger goal or scale, and we never quite get there,” Martinez said.

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The district will take a more decentralized approach to remediation. It will ask each of its schools, during this April and May, to develop plans on how to use the extra time next year. The plans will need to be approved by parents and staff at the buildings. Meanwhile, the district office will have master teachers design different curriculum supports that target specific grade levels or subjects where data show that students have particularly struggled. Classroom teachers will be able to customize them.

One area of focus, Martinez said, will be upper elementary and lower secondary math classes.

“If you’re a principal working with teachers and parents, you’ll look at the data, at where the children are, and we’ll ask that not only you create the extra days but plan how you layer in the extra support in math,” he said.

Martinez said the district is also working on a plan to help its entering kindergarten students—approximately 30 percent of whom did not attend pre-K, thanks to the pandemic.

He expects it will cost about $2,500 a student to yield a strong recovery year in 2021-22.

A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 2021 edition of Education Week as Districts Eye Summer and Beyond to Recoup Learning Losses. Here’s What 3 Have on Tap

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