Opinion
Student Achievement Opinion

Is Summer School the Answer Or the Problem?

By Marilyn J. Stenvall — May 23, 2001 5 min read

Increasingly today, there is a cry for more summer school programs, better summer school programs, longer summer school programs—well, you get the picture. If only students would go to school in the summer, we could instruct them, promote them, and send them on to the next grade, chock full of all the information they somehow missed during the regular school year. Even large school systems are buying into this idea. Take New York City, for example.

We no longer have “summer school,” we have summer prison.

Toward the end of the last school year, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani announced grandly that all social promotion was ended, and that 35,000 students were to report to summer school before they could continue their educations. This was hailed by the standards promulgators as signifying that here, at last, was a definitive line in the educational sand. The announcement said to the world that summer school was in the future of every student who didn’t meet the mark.

The follow-up to the city’s whole “do it or else” declaration was that, of the 35,000 students who were ordered to report to summer school, 14,000 never showed up. And among those who actually enrolled for summer courses, according to The New York Times, just 57 percent passed the classes they were required to take. So fewer than 8,000 of the original 35,000 failing students complied with the summer school “pass or else” edict.

As we begin to analyze once again this spring the yearly progress of students, what lessons can we learn from New York City, and from many other communities growing increasingly nervous over student failure, high absence rates, and an inability to meet standards? The question is not so much about whether or not everyone, including students, wants a positive and successful educational program; they do. It is about what to do when progress toward that goal falls short.

It’s time to find a new solution to an old problem and rid ourselves of the failure of summer school itself.

Let’s look first at what summer school is today. State funding over recent years has provided classes that remediate basic skills and those that provide the core curriculum—in other words, the basics. If a high school student fails 9th grade English, for example, that class is offered in summer school to be taken again. Given the shortage of funds, the so-called “enrichment courses” that used to be offered during the summer have all but disappeared from the summer curriculum: Music, cooking (coed in recent years), word processing (following closely on the heels of the old typing classes), art, acting, and drama—all those courses have trickled away over time.

So what is left? Back to the basics! But more than that, back to the basics with only those students who failed the basics. Here we have a summer school comprising only students who have been diagnosed as failures, documented as failures, and confirmed (by egregious amounts of testing) to be failures. In short, we no longer have “summer school,” a heterogeneous affair with students of all abilities learning together in the same system, we have summer prison, where youngsters have committed the crime of failure and are sentenced to a cell of like offenders to do their time.

Is it any wonder that students don’t show up? After being told all school year, warned and threatened with the consequences of summer jail, the jury speaks and the sentence is levied. Unlike the regular school year, children are singled out and placed in a negative grouping, to try to relearn with those who couldn’t or wouldn’t the first time around. The ultimate consequence has come to pass: As students walk or board the bus for summer school, everyone now knows who the culprits are who are dragging the school test scores down: the summer school-sentenced.

We continue to teach more stuff and do it faster, failing those who don’t get it right away.

But what should happen if students are unable to meet standards? Standards are not inherently evil, nor is it a crime that most of us at one time or another in our educational lives need more time to learn in certain areas. Some people learn to read quickly; others do not. (Both Edison and Einstein, it is said, were slow to read.) Few of us are math and English whizzes; not many are potential Nobel laureates in science. Some of us may be quick studies in languages, but others bog down in grammar. In short, there is a time in all our lives where extra and special help in learning might be of great benefit.

There is another way. Close to 2,000 schools nationwide have realigned their instructional calendars with the learning needs of their students. Charter schools are seldom closed to students for two or three months at a time.

The long summer vacation can be shortened to a month or six weeks, and the balance of the time can be redistributed to the middle of each semester to give opportunity to students who want and need an extra push, a second explanation, a special day to rethink, a period of time to avoid failure. At the same time, enrichment, drama, sports, and music classes can be scheduled during the same timeframe, or on alternate days, to attract students with otherwise full schedules, particularly in high schools. Then there is not a “prison” established, but a positive learning environment for students. This is a philosophy of prevention, of intervention in advance of failure, and one of enrichment that can offer a quality education to all students.


The advent of modern psychology has taught us much in the field of education that remains to be applied. We say that creating a positive learning environment will produce better-achieving students, and yet we follow the failure-and- remediation syndrome. We know that kids benefit more from learning when they can “get it right” the first time around, but we continue to teach more stuff and do it faster, failing those who don’t get it right away. In short, what our educational philosophy pretends to be does not match what we practice in most public school jurisdictions today.

There will always be the brilliant few who excel at any speed, under any circumstances; and there may always be some who fail in spite of our best efforts. Changing the school calendar, so that a prevention model is in place, will do more for the majority than any threats and exhortations about summer school, the ultimate punishment.

Student failure isn’t the enemy. Branding students as failures is, especially when our own failure to change is the culprit. U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige has said that we cannot speed ahead into the future with our eyes on the rear-view mirror. It’s time to find a new solution to an old problem and rid ourselves of the failure of summer school itself.


Marilyn Stenvall is the executive director of the National Association for Year-Round Education, based in San Diego. She is a former high school principal, and can be reached at stenvall@nayre.org.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2001 edition of Education Week as Is Summer School the Answer Or the Problem?

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