Your Education News Round-Up: Starting to Sweat Summer School

Thanks for coming back for a second serving of the Education News Round-up. This service is better than Seamless because you don’t have to look your delivery guy in the face for the fifth time this week to consume it. We got you covered.

Like so many parts of our lives right now, the news feels like it is moving incredibly fast and slow. The world of K-12 education evolves daily. Before getting into the nitty gritty, I want to take a moment to reaffirm this publication’s commitment to fighting and educating against hate, prejudice, and discrimination in all its virulent and dehumanizing forms.

We stand with our Asian-American brothers and sisters in their fight against hate. A fundamental part of this is combatting the new language of oppression and demonization that has emerged during the coronavirus pandemic. These resources from the NYC Department of Education and NYC Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes provide opportunities for educators and parents to have conversations with students about violence directed at the Asian-American community and empowering ways to stand up against hate, even in the virtual space.

We mourn the loss of Daunte Wright, who was killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. This publication stands with the Black Lives Matter movement and is ever-committed to eliminating racism by naming systemic injustices and trauma committed by public institutions against Black people. The NYC Department of Education has compiled a set of resources to support families in having conversations about violence and racism in our society, including how it has impacted people in the past and in our present time.

Federal News:

  • On April 9, President Biden sent Congress his first discretionary spending proposal of $1.5 trillion. The Education Department would see a roughly 41 percent increase over its current allocation, reaching $102 billion next fiscal year. Most of the new funds are earmarked for the Title I program, which funds high-poverty schools; the proposal would double federal spending on Title I, marking the largest increase since the program was created over 55 years ago.

  • This funding request comes on top of Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, signed in March, which includes $129 billion to help students and educators cope with the effects of the pandemic. About $123 billion is part of a stabilization fund to be distributed through the federal Title I formula for disadvantaged kids. Paired with the two prior COVID-19 relief bills in March and December 2020, public schools have received $195 billion in aid from the federal government to help confront the pandemic, far exceeding the $100 billion K-12 education received in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to counteract the Great Recession.

New York City:

  • Mayor Bill de Blasio and school principals in New York City continue to find themselves at odds with each other. Back in March, the Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) released revised guidelines for K-12 schools, including advising that physical distancing of 3 feet is likely sufficient in most instances. De Blasio continues to push for a return of an additional 51,000 kids to New York City schools by April 26, enabled by the move from 6 feet to 3 feet social distancing between students. However, principals, still without guidance or guidelines to prepare, say that the plans are on old.

  • Meisha Ross Porter, the first Black female Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, has been in her role a month now. Porter is making big plans and top of her list is reshaping summer school to support as many students as possible.

Deep Dive: Is Summer School Worth It?

If you haven’t already, you’re about to start hearing a lot about summer school. In the coronavirus relief package, $30 billion of that whopping $1.9 trillion is dedicated to summer school. A chorus of support is coming out in favor of summer school, including: President Biden; the governors of several states, among them California and Virginia; and the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the largest teachers’ union, Randi Weingarten. Chancellor Porter in NYC is making summer school a core part of her vision for education in NYC as a strategy to accelerate learning prior to the start of the fall semester, a position that many others are likely to take.

(Photo/Kelly Sikkema)

Amongst the chorus of summer school supporters is Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who is joining governors and state education chiefs in creating plans for summer learning. Cardona announced the launch of the Summer Learning & Enrichment Collaborative, which will assist states, school districts, and others in planning how to use new relief funds, including the $1.2 billion earmarked for summer enrichment in the American Rescue Plan. The Collaborative and supportive funding initiatives are intended to “build and deepen partnerships across states, districts, and among educators, parents, philanthropy, and nonprofit partners to scale up and sustain successful programs,” according to the department.

The emphasis on summer school is not particularly surprising. There is a fear that students, particularly low income students, are falling dangerously behind in their academic learning, and parents, educators, politicians, and the general public are looking for solutions. Treating summer school as an extension of the spring 2021 semester is increasingly becoming a popular option. However, what types of programs and initiatives get the most value for money is unclear. Right now, districts are considering a spectrum of options, including virtual tutoring, extending the current school year, increasing student access to high quality teachers, and adding days to the 2021-22 school year.

Sara’s Hot Take

Before there was covid-related “learning loss” (a term this author does not endorse), the controversy was over the “summer slide” - the two to three months of academic learning that most kids lose over the summer and is typically deeper for low income students. Thus, between a misguided myopic focus on academic learning as the most important kind of education schools and an obsession with approaching kids, especially lower income students, as in a perpetual knowledge deficit, it is not surprising that leaders are hawking summer school as the first step on the road to recovery.

Whether summer school can solve our problems is up for debate. The lack of glamour surrounding summer school means that there is not a lot of research on it, compared to other areas of education policy. This also stems from practical reasons - it is hard to get good data on it, including who attends, what’s being taught and the quality of it, and the ultimate impact of those programs. That said, some studies suggest that students who do participate in a variety of different kinds of summer learning programs all see positive impacts, some lasting for two years. There is potential that these effects could be longer lasting, new research pending confirmation.

While we do lack information on efficacy, we do know that implementing high quality, consistent, and accessible summer programming has been a struggle for districts. Summer school has a high price tag, and districts and states have routinely cut funding for it, sending programs to the policy graveyard. Moreover, our education system is at once highly decentralized and heavily bureaucratized. Meaning, schools, districts, states, and the federal government all hold varying degrees of power and authority over different components of education policy, while at the same time there are rules, regulations, and red tape at every level. Thus, while governors might be reading the gospel of summer school right now, teachers and district administrators might not be. Leaders at the state level do not have a load of ways through which they could compel districts to fall in line. Even if they did, local union contracts make it impossible to require teachers to sign up to teach summer school, and surveys indicate that teachers are not in favor of shortening the summer. So, getting agreement on expanded summer school options is a monumental task requiring significant alignment across leaders, before we even get to talking about teachers and kids in classrooms.

So how do we start putting all of this together? My sense is that, if district, state, and union leaders can find common ground, summer school could be a great option, but only if we keep three things in mind:

  1. Summer school should focus on enrichment for all kids. Art, music, sports, and opportunities to build social emotional skills and begin to process the pandemic should all be as important as core academics. Students have had a challenging year too. Building up their emotional reserves is as important for a successful fall semester as catching up on fractions. If we’re serious about closing gaps between wealthy and lower income students, then summer enrichment must be equally available to everyone.

  2. Pay teachers fairly and meet their demands. Teachers have put in more hours over the past year than they do in most years. A largely female professional body, we know that these women have beared the greater burden of raising kids and working during the pandemic (no disrespect to those dads also leading our classrooms.) Teachers have legitimate concerns about sufficient ventilation and building safety to ensure a safe, hospitable learning environment. We must address these concerns if we’re serious about summer school.

  3. Think of the relief money as start-up funding and start planning for replacing the funds in the future. Short term thinking is rampant in education, particularly in the wake of a crisis when we’re fire fighting. However, if we’re serious about shifting what teaching and learning looks like in the long term, we should treat summer school as an opportunity to do that. This includes figuring out funding, which has long been the reason why plenty of summer enrichment programs have been axed. It’s worth mentioning that while summer school is thought to be where struggling kids go to catch up, summer school serves a whole range of kids - those catching up on credits, others looking to get ahead, and others looking for supplemental learning opportunities. Creating a system focused on year-long educational experiences for kids will require long term financial planning and visionary thinking, so districts and states should start talking about this now.

Managing expectations and maintaining a growth mindset is going to be key in plotting a way forward in the coming months. Approach any suggestions of summer school with that lens.

Editor’s Note: Sara is a researcher, public policy advisor, educator, writer, and comedian based in New York City. Sara currently works for the New York City Department of Education as the lead researcher and data strategist for teacher recognition programs. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics & Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and holds a Master of Philosophy in Education from the University of Cambridge and a B.A. in Political Economy and English from Tulane University. Her creative nonfiction short stories have appeared in Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies, American Chordata, and The Merrimack Review.

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