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Answer Sheet: Teacher: What’s Missing From Calls for Summer School to Stem ‘Learning Loss’

School districts concerned about how much learning students have missed since the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States last spring are considering how to get kids back on academic track, with options including summer school, year-round learning, grade retention and targeted tutoring.

No option is ideal (and some, like grade retention, have no basis on research as being effective) — and, of course, there are big questions about whether Congress will pitch in to provide the significant financial resources necessary to implement them. Though President Biden has proposed legislation with funding, there is no guarantee the Senate will go along — even with Democrats in control.

At the moment, the option being raised more often than others seems to be some form of summer school, with several governors, including those of Virginia and California, raising the issue. University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham wrote a piece in the New York Daily News about why he thinks it is the best option.

This post about summer school and how to address the issue of lost student learning is from an admittedly exhausted veteran teacher, Larry Ferlazzo, who has some ideas about the current debate and what is missing from the conversation.

Ferlazzo teaches English and social studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento. He has written or edited a dozen books on education, writes a teacher advice blog for Education Week Teacher and has a popular resource-sharing blog.

By Larry Ferlazzo

Many people I respect, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and University of Virginia cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, are pushing a strategy of expanded summer school for students to compensate for what some characterize as “learning loss.”

I am not opposed to going down this road, but it is important to note right now that several key issues are missing from much of the summer school discussion.

First is teacher exhaustion. Many teachers (including me) are exhausted right now from teaching during the pandemic — and there are still four or five months left to go for the regularly scheduled school year. Many of us are not going to have anything left to give this summer.

Given that reality, I expect any summer teaching force to be composed primarily of young teachers who could use the money and who are least at risk of covid-19 complications, along with those who would have just graduated from teacher credentialing programs and who have little or no experience in a regular physical classroom. And with summer school typically having minimal on-site administration, who will be around to support less-experienced teachers?

Another potential problem: who will be vaccinated by the time summer arrives. Summer school in the physical classroom assumes that all teachers will be vaccinated by then. That’s likely — but, with all the problems with the vaccination rollout, who knows?

A related problem is that it appears unlikely that students will be vaccinated by then; there is no approved vaccine for children right now, and how long it will take is not clear. I am concerned that districts that did not take teacher safety seriously before an adult vaccine became a reality will have little reason to do so after teachers are vaccinated. And that would be bad news for students’ and teachers’ families, in large part because experts say someone who is vaccinated can still spread the disease.

I am not arguing against offering summer school as a matter of regular policy. So many of our schools haven’t had it for so long! When I began teaching 17 years ago, 60 percent of our high school students would attend and could choose from plenty of enrichment courses as well as regular content classes. More recently, districts have faced serious budget pressures, and in our district, summer school has been offered to seniors who need to retake a failed class to graduate.

To be sure, this summer is going to be a different experience, and I have seen little to indicate that these issues are being carefully considered. And that is a recipe for disaster.

So, given these problems, here are some suggestions on how to help students who need it right now and this summer:

What could be done NOW with new federal funding (assuming we get it):

  • Districts could immediately give funds to schools to hire outreach staff to connect with the 5 percent to 10 percent of students (at least, if my classes are typical) who have “disappeared.” No, we don’t need districts to hire centralized staff to do this work; we need staff directly connected to individual schools and local communities who have relationships with teachers and administrators, and who can build the same with local families.
  • Districts could invite teachers to propose enrichment classes they would teach before and after school during this second semester of the 2020-2021 school year Though we are exhausted, the prospect of being well-compensated to teach what we want and the way we want to do it might entice at least some of us to provide extra high-interest educational opportunities to students. These classes could be offered remotely or in-person, depending on each community’s health situation — and they could provide additional sources of student engagement and enhance both student and teacher mental health.

What could be done THIS SUMMER with stimulus funding:

  • Yes, offer summer school under safe conditions, but do it through the lens of equity and not equality. Target students who have been most negatively affected by the pandemic: English Language Learners, students with learning challenges and those who have been most disconnected from school. Focus on providing small classes and, in addition to hiring the newer teachers, hire more experienced ones who might be excited to mentor and support educators doing the day-to-day teaching. These mentor teachers can be directed to ensure that the summer school curriculum is not “drill-and-kill remediation” but instead focused on engaging instruction supporting higher-order thinking skills. If, after ensuring there are enough educators to support these high-priority students, there are still some who want to directly teach during the summer, they can offer enrichment classes to others.
  • During this summer, districts could financially support schools and their entire workforce to use local K-12 teachers to lead high-quality professional development — and pay staff to attend it — in effective formative assessment, differentiating instruction, culturally responsive teaching and social-emotional learning. Those four elements will be critical as we enter the next school year. Many districts failed miserably last summer preparing teachers for this year. We can hope they learned from it.

To get a sense if my hunch is right about how teacher exhaustion would affect the convening of summer school, I recently tweeted:

I received many responses. Here are some representative examples:


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The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.

Larry Ferlazzo

Larry Ferlazzo has been a high school teacher since 2003 after spending nineteen years working as a community organizer. He teaches Beginner, Intermediate, and Ad...