As hundreds of thousands of students soon head off to summer school, several crucial and long-unanswered questions about teacher quality could get a second look: Which teachers get recruited for summer school, and how well does their instruction align with the knowledge and skills children need to master?
A hefty body of evidence documents the phenomenon of “summer learning loss,” but consensus on the attributes of effective summer intervention, especially when it comes to access to high-quality teaching for students most at risk of falling behind, is only starting to emerge.
Now, though, a handful of districts are beginning to wrestle with the topic, thanks in part to an emphasis on both teacher quality and expanded learning in the 2009 federal economic-stimulus legislation.
For the upcoming summer session, which will serve approximately 20,000 students, Houston officials plan to recruit top teachers using information from the district’s value-added system.
Several other districts, such as Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and Providence, R.I., have also begun efforts to make summer school engaging for students and attractive to teachers, largely through better alignment of academic and enrichment opportunities.
But as school leaders acknowledge, changing the conversation about summer school is still a heavy lift.
“You’re recruiting teachers for the next school year, trying to find the right principals, ordering textbooks, and deep-cleaning schools and reservicing buses,” said Terry Grier, the Houston superintendent. “And then there’s this thing called summer school, and for a lot of folks, it’s an afterthought.”
Proof abounds on summer learning loss for all kinds of students. But, especially in reading, it seems to hit low-income children hardest, according to Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, in Durham, N.C., who has studied many program evaluations of summer school.
Traditionally, observers say, programming in summer school has not been well thought out to give at-risk students supplemental access to the best teachers or to higher-quality instruction.
“It is by and large a way to give easy credits for kids who have failed something, not to add academic value,” said Gene Bottoms, the senior vice president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, who has tracked summer school initiatives in member states. “The press is to do remediation, but it ought to be a time to give principals and teachers a chance to step back, reflect on problems and their causes, and formulate a different approach to engage and motivate students to learn at a deeper level.”
Researchers cite the vicissitudes of the budgeting process as one reason why a focus on issues of high-quality teaching is rare: Many districts are simply trying to cobble together the funding to keep summer school running at all, they say.
“Summer school is a line item which is most frequently discussed in the context of the budget constraints, so the planning typically begins late in the school year,” said Mr. Cooper. “It’s a struggle to find the funding, and that’s typically the top priority.”
Contracts in seven of the nation’s 10 largest school districts set specific policies for hiring summer school teachers.
Broward County, Fla.: applicants must be certified and have taught at least one school year in the subject during the prior three years. Teachers with less than a “satisfactory” evaluation are ineligible. The school board selects 80 percent of teachers, and the other 20 percent are selected based on district seniority.
Chicago: Teachers certified in the subject matter or grade level in the school are assigned first, then tenured teachers outside the school, and then nontenured teachers. If applications outpace enrollment, teachers who have taught fewer than two prior summer sessions have priority; evaluations can also be considered.
Hillsborough County, Fla.: Teachers from each school are hired in proportion to the number of students from that school attending summer programming, within each subject area. Seniority is used as a tiebreaker if there are too many applicants.
Los Angeles: Applicants must have tenure. Within geographic pools of applicants, teachers who have taught less than half time, or have not taught summer school before, receive priority. Seniority is used as a tiebreaker if fewer teachers are needed.
Miami-Dade County, Fla.: The principal staffing a summer school program must offer a teaching position to the union steward on the summer school faculty, provided (s)he is certified in the course. Certified teachers with tenure also have priority.
New York City: Teachers with two years of satisfactory performance in summer school will have retention priority for the following school year.
Orange County, Calif.: Preference is given to teachers assigned to the school for the upcoming year.
SOURCE: National Council on Teacher Quality
There is no federal funding stream specifically devoted to summer school, although funds from a variety of federal programs can be tapped for those purposes, such as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, an after-school program, and Title I, which provides districts with funds to serve disadvantaged children.
Putting a focus on the issue of summer school instructional quality is not simple because of the challenge posed by recruiting staff for district-run programs. Most teachers work on nine- or 10-month contracts, so teaching in summer school is a voluntary enterprise paid by the hour at a rate that can fall below that in the regular school year contract.
Summer school selections also bear the hallmarks of federal, state, and local rules. Those district-run programs financed under the Title I program, for instance, must staff all core academic classes with teachers who meet the “highly qualified” designation under the No Child Left Behind law.
And a sampling of contracts from the nation’s 10 largest districts illuminates additional variables at play. Some agreements give preference to teachers with more seniority or those who have taught the class in the past. Other districts reverse the equation, giving a shot to teachers who haven’t held a summer position. Still others carry even more specific requirements, as in the Miami-Dade County, Fla., school system, which gives preference to teachers’ union building representatives.
Whatever rules are at work, observers say that a strong system of attracting talent is a necessary step for improving summer learning.
“It’s critical that the right adults be the ones working with students during the extra time, and they should be experienced, effective teachers,” said Chris Gabrieli, the chairman of the Boston-based National Center on Time and Learning, a nonprofit advocacy group. “I think there are plenty of them in the teacher corps; school leaders need to find ways to recruit them.”
A New Approach
Houston officials think they have come up with one promising idea. This summer, the 200,000-student system will tie eligibility to teach summer school to the district’s emerging system for measuring teacher effectiveness, along with a better salary for those with a good track record.
The idea, Superintendent Grier said, rose out of school board discussions about how to address summer school quality while dealing with a decline in funding for the program from about $25 million last year to $16 million this summer, not counting special education services.
“I think it’s a really visionary idea from our school board,” Mr. Grier said.
To be eligible to teach reading and math courses, current teachers of those subjects will need to meet a specific threshold in the districts’ value-added calculation showing they are helping students learn.
In addition, the going rate for a summer school teacher in Houston, $30 an hour, would rise to $40 an hour for teachers whose value-added estimates show they are particularly skilled at raising student learning, Mr. Grier said. Teachers whose students lost ground over the course of the school year won’t be eligible for summer positions in those fields.
Value-added is a sophisticated statistical model that attempts to isolate the impact of a teacher on his or her students’ achievement growth. It has, however, proven controversial in Houston, and elsewhere; the teachers’ association there wants to slow its incorporation into a formal teacher-evaluation system set to begin this fall.
Houston is one of the first districts to move the teacher-effectiveness conversation into the realm of summer school.
“I’m guessing very few districts could give you a list of which teachers taught summer school every year,” said Kathy Christie, the chief of staff at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit research clearinghouse and membership organization. “We’re just getting all the legislation on measuring effectiveness in place, and it’s in its infancy.”
As for the specifics of programming, much of the discussion among advocates mirrors that of advocates of expanded learning opportunities. In general, Mr. Gabrieli of the time and learning center said, the most promising approaches tap good teacher talent, build on data about where students fall short, and include a curricula designed to engage struggling students in hands-on activities that present academic skills in a new context.
Summer school advocates suggest that those components can go hand in hand with a focus on improving better talent. Teachers are attracted to summer school positions in which they have time to try out new instructional techniques or assume leadership roles, they say.
“We want to get rid of the stigma of summer school as a bad place to be,” said Jeff D. Smink, the vice president of policy for the Baltimore-based National Association for Summer Learning. “It’s a time for students to learn and be innovative, but it’s also a time for teachers to learn and be innovative and to do some significant professional development. Those who want to be school leaders can manage a summer school site to get that administrative experience and leadership experience.”
That’s one of the selling points of a summer program poised to begin its second year in Providence. The product of a five-year partnership between the Providence After School Alliance, community-based partner organizations, and the school district, the AfterZone Summer Schools Initiative will serve 250 middle school students in several smaller cohorts this summer.
The initiative hires Providence teachers to serve as program developers or content specialists in math and reading, and pairs them with a “community educator” from a local community-based organization.
Over a six-meeting orientation, the teams design and plan the curriculum for the program and for integrating math and literacy skill-building lessons into weekly field-based project experiences.
At least one Providence teacher and a community educator are on site during each day’s activities, allowing for co-teaching and better supervision as students seek to apply academic skills during the field activities.
“The design is so that young people see this as one full project, not something that’s compartmentalized into different areas,” said Patrick Duhon, the director of expanded learning for both the Providence district and the Providence After School Alliance.
The word is also getting out among the Providence teaching force, with applications on the rise for this summer’s program.
For Mr. Smink, of the summer learning association, the focus on quality teaching is welcome.
“In some places, summer school is a teacher-welfare thing,” he said. “We’re trying to get away from that. You want to have teachers who really want to be there and work on their trade.”
Coverage of leadership, human-capital development, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the May 18, 2011 edition of Education Week as Quality of Summer Teachers Examined