How to use the summer to prevent learning loss

Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on the hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.

In today’s column, Gene Kerns, a chief academic officer at Renaissance Learning, talks about how teachers can address learning losses caused by summer slide and the coronavirus pandemic. 

As the 2019–2020 school year comes to a close, some educators may be feeling a sense of relief at watching a particularly challenging spring fade in the rearview mirror. Many more, however, may already be worrying about all the catching up students and teachers will have to do in the fall. As a result, many are looking to make this summer more academic than the typical summer — though it’s not entirely clear how to accomplish that in a remote learning world.

Amid the uncertainty and confusion caused by the pandemic, there is a small but growing group of voices suggesting that some of what we thought we knew about the summer slide may not be true. So, is it helpful for educators to address summer learning losses? And, if so, how can they tackle that challenge in a summer where they may not be able to physically meet with students? Unsurprisingly, there are no perfect answers to these questions, but we can gain some clarity on these issues.

What Do We Know About Summer Slide?

Recently, Paul von Hippel of the University of Texas, Austin, and researchers at the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study each independently tried to replicate the results of the Beginning School Study, upon which many commonly held beliefs about the summer slide are based. Those beliefs include the idea that overall performance gaps are created during summer months and that, traditionally, disadvantaged kids are the most affected.

Von Hippel and his team found that students suffered two to three months of a slide, while the ECLS researchers found only a trivial amount. Von Hippel’s summary of the conflicting results is clarifying.

“So, what do we know about summer learning loss? Less than we think,” he wrote in Education Next. “The problem could be serious, or it could be trivial. Children might lose a third of a year’s learning over summer vacation, or they might tread water. Achievement gaps might grow faster during summer vacations, or they might not.”

There are, however, some findings that are consistent across the analyses. Perhaps the most relevant when weighing the merits of summer learning programs is that, as von Hippel notes, “nearly all children, no matter how advantaged, learn much more slowly during summer vacations than they do during the school year.”

That allows us to let go of what we don’t know about summer learning loss and begin to look at the summer as an opportunity. If all students are either learning more slowly or regressing when they are away from school, then summer is an occasion to offer programs and support for our students who are on the lower ends of performance and help them catch up. If educators can help them grow faster while others are slowing down, achievement gaps can be closed.

Keeping the Learning Faucet Open

With the unusual ending of this school year, however, many educators are going to want to do more than simply focus on closing academic achievement gaps.

When it comes to reading skills, there is good news in a couple of other findings that have been consistent across summer learning loss research. First, summer reading losses tend not to be severe, and second, it’s easier to prevent those losses from occurring than it is in other academic areas.

James Kim, a professor of education at Harvard, found that even a modest amount of independent reading over the summer could negate nearly all of the typical loss — or as researchers, Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Olson put it “keep the learning faucet open.”

Math is a bit tougher, as students tend to lose more math learning during the summer, and its interdependent and “ruthlessly cumulative” nature, as Steven Pinker describes it, means that losses in one area can impact others. Nevertheless, the idea is the same: keep students engaged in some math practice.

The Year of the Interim Assessment

With so many unknowns this summer coming on top of the lost instructional time, one-on-one instruction, and other interruptions students experienced in the spring, many learning losses will simply have to be addressed in the fall.

The next academic year will be the year of interim and formative assessment more than any other. Districts will go an unprecedented two years without summative data, so they’ll have a heightened desire to know where students are and how they are performing. To what degree did they experience, not just the summer slide, but a much more severe “COVID-19 Slide”?

This is an environment in which the need for interim assessment is greater than ever. Presenting assessment results in a manner that makes sense to parents and students is going to be critical. For years, authors like Bob Marzano and Rick Stiggins have encouraged schools to involve students in the process by having them interact with and plot their data to inspire increased achievement.

As the results of those assessments help educators understand where students need additional support, they will also need to understand which skills are going to help students cover the most ground in catching up. Acquiring any new skill advances learning, but some fundamental skills are critical in that they are applicable to multiple domains and are prerequisites for other learning.

A simple example is associating letters and sounds, a skill used in literacy. A more advanced example in algebra is “graph a linear equation using coordinate axes,” which is a prerequisite for nonlinear graphing functions in more advanced courses and is needed to understand mathematical models. Understanding how to identify these skills and to develop a plan for drilling down on them is something teachers can do over the summer to prepare for the new year.

In the end, despite all the extraordinary circumstances, educators’ jobs this summer and fall will be fundamentally the same: To keep students as engaged as possible, and to provide the individual support they need to progress, no matter their current grade level.