It’s spring of 2021 and schools across the world are wrestling with the challenges of bringing students back to physical classrooms full time, all with the doomsday drumbeat of student ‘learning loss’ and a push to ‘double-down’ on addressing the achievement gap through a mandated summer school.
This is a continuation of the ‘threat and rigidity response’ to the global pandemic. It’s understandable. Schools were designed to be hierarchies, which run most efficiently on the principles of control, compliance, and consumption. This structure was inadequate in the face of a VUCA world pre-pandemic; COVID has laid bare to us all the systems’ inadequacy to respond and adapt.
Historically, summer school has either been designed as a remediation tool or as an enrichment option. Schools and their communities are looking to this year’s summer school to not only address learning gaps for every child, but also to provide social and emotional supports, and to help facilitate critical transitions from elementary to middle school and middle to high school.
Given this year’s extraordinary circumstances, we would argue that an intensive rigorous summer school experience to address ‘learning loss’ is not the answer. The evidence for a long term positive impact on student learning via summer school is slim at best – even in ‘normal’ times.
What should we do instead?
Three Truths for Post-COVID Schooling
We’ve all experienced a year-long traumatic event. We all need time to process what happened, feel safe, and eventually heal. And we don’t do that by jumping onto a hamster wheel of rote-learning and drill-and-kill notions of academic rigor.
The pandemic shone a blinding spotlight on three truths that were present even before 2020:
- We are preparing children for an unknowable, rapidly changing future. Passing down established knowledge and skills is simply not going to cut it anymore.
- Well-established research-based findings in the science of learning and human development mean that we must challenge many of our long-standing ways of organizing schools, teaching, and learning.
- Historical issues of inequity continue to waste enormous potential and tear our communities apart; the time is now to address them and build more equitable systems where all children can thrive.
If you are providing summer school options for your students this year, consider focusing on these three ideas:
- Preparing students for our changing world
- Infusing the science of learning and human development into our schools
- Ensuring deep, systematic equity for all children to thrive.
Slow but Steady Summer School Planning
Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS) in Maryland provides an inspiring example of the intersection of these three ideas in action. Teachers and administrators have planned a summer program that provides a series of options for its 44,000 students. One of the options is the ELEVATE Academy, a program that is designed to meet students where they are, prepare them for the start of the next academic year, and to reignite the joy of learning and social connection. FCPS’s Superintendent, Dr. Terry Alban, set the stage for summer school in a recent weekly update to staff entitled, “Slow but Steady”. Here is an excerpt:
“…Every student has experienced trauma. The impact of trauma must be addressed first. Academic gains will rely on getting the brain ready for learning first.
Our goal for summer programs is to build on the social experiences of school. For some students, it is simply a chance to reconnect and refresh some skills that got rusty. For other students, it is a chance to feel safe in a school setting again. For some students, it is an opportunity to interact socially. For other students, it is a chance to explore hands-on in order to acquire skills that they could not grasp in a virtual world.
Every student’s story will be unique. Every student’s needs will be different. There is no pre-test that will tell teachers the full story behind each child, but that story is critically important to moving forward. In an age of accountability and a desire to use test scores to measure success, we may be losing sight of what our students really need to recover.
Slow but steady.”
The FCPS ELEVATE Academy is offered to elementary, middle and high school students for the month of July. Its design is grounded in forward thinking, not deficit thinking; it is designed to quickly assess the pre-learning needed in order to support students in moving confidently into their next grade level. Here is an overview of the program:
- Expanding skills and knowledge – looking at standards and using the best instructional strategies aligned with Mind Brain Education – ensuring a balance of academic and SEL support. It’s not about going back and teaching grade 4 to grade 4, it’s about getting grade 4 ready for grade 5.
- Learning school routines and structures – recognizing that some students still need to understand the regular routines that are part of effective executive functioning in schools, e.g. organizing materials, keeping a calendar, working with others, etc.
- Exploring interesting topics and subjects – providing every student access to not just content, but enrichment and enabling engagement and achievement through choice.
- Visiting with friends – focusing on social interaction – a critical factor in nurturing wellbeing and development. Making time for recess so that students can be outside and make friends.
- Acclimating to new environments – supporting students as they prepare to navigate those critical transition years, from elementary to middle school or from middle to high school.
- Tackling new and exciting challenges – supporting enrichment, focusing on hands-on tasks and challenges that could not have been accomplished remotely. For example, middle school students will program an Edison robot that they can bring home, elementary school students will create solar bots and catapults.
- Engaging in lots of fun! Because play matters.
This is a prime example of the three truths in action. The ELEVATE elements are not stand-alone aspects of the program but rather threaded throughout the summer academy in a holistic way, for example, the focus for high schoolers is equal parts credit recovery, preparation for ‘what’s next,’ executive functioning and social emotional learning. At the elementary and middle school levels, the focus is making time for recess and social connections as students address learning gaps and (re)learn how to learn.
In our next article, we will provide actionable steps for leaders and educators to leverage the ‘three truths’ as you design and implement your summer school program. In the meantime, we leave you with the words of Meg Lee, FCPS, Director of Organizational Development:
“We have to think beyond learning loss. We have to also ask ourselves, “What was gained? What did we learn?” We need to quickly shore up areas where support is needed and to keep moving forward. We can’t remediate our way out of this. We need to prioritize our way out.”
Bio for Corwin Connect:
Julie (Wilson) Jungalwala is an author, instructor, and leadership coach. She is driven to help others realize and achieve their potential – whether that be through her work as the Founder of the Institute for the Future of Learning, or as an Instructor at Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education. She is the author of The Human Side of Changing Education. Julie Stern is passionate about empowering teachers to design curriculum and instruction to meet the needs of our complex times. She is the best-selling author of many books, including Learning That Transfers: Designing Curriculum for a Changing World. They are teaming up to provide actionable steps that leaders and teachers alike can use to remain adaptable and grounded in our ever-changing world.