Parents can help ensure post-pandemic summer school programs are effective and evidence-based: Jessica Poiner

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The pandemic has had a dramatic effect on every aspect of our lives, and education is high on the list.

An in-depth analysis of 2021 state test scores by Vladimir Kogan and Stephane Lavertu of The Ohio State University found that students in Ohio lost between a half and a full year of math learning and between a third and a half of a year’s worth of learning in English language arts compared to previous years. Disadvantaged groups of students on average lost more learning than their peers. These losses have both serious short-term consequences, such as students struggling to meet grade-level standards, and longer-term adverse effects, such as being less prepared for college and the job market.

Schools face great challenges as they try to help students get back to where they need to be. The coming summer months are a huge opportunity, as schools can use this time to implement programs that directly and systematically address the learning gaps caused by the pandemic. The hundreds of millions of dollars now available to schools through federal relief efforts could pay for a wide range of evidence-based interventions, like high-dose tutoring and rigorous project-based learning.

Even under normal circumstances, such opportunities are essential. It is well documented that the “summer slide” can rob many students of the achievement gains they have made over the course of a school year. The declines can be particularly pronounced for students who lack access to opportunities that are readily available to their more affluent peers. In the wake of a pandemic that has hit underserved communities particularly hard, quality summer schools can help minimize if not fill the gaps.

Several districts in Ohio have already recognized the value of summer school. Last summer, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District offered students two four-week sessions with programming from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. participate in activities often led by a community partner. High school students also had many opportunities. According to the district, more than 8,000 students have registered to participate.

The Cleveland program is back for a second year and registration has already begun. Similar programs are popping up in other districts in northeast Ohio, and that’s good news. But to get students back on track, it’s essential that summer programs provide meaningful academic intervention and instruction as well as opportunities for engagement and enrichment. Enrolling children and getting them into school buildings to participate is only half the battle. To mitigate learning loss, children must also learn.

That’s where families and community members come in. By asking the right questions and holding schools accountable for the answers, they can ensure this summer isn’t wasted. Some questions they should ask local schools include: How significant is learning loss in my community? How does learning loss vary across student subgroups, neighborhoods, and schools? What evidence-based interventions are schools implementing this summer to support students? And how is growth tracked so parents and educators know if summer programs have helped reduce learning loss?

The pandemic has deprived students of a plethora of experiences, but pedagogically the most significant has been missed instruction. Summer school is a perfect way to recover some of that time. And thanks to three federal relief acts, Ohio schools have received more than $6 billion in additional funding since the pandemic began.

This means that this summer, schools have the money and the time to take a serious initiative to support the thousands of students who have been derailed by COVID. But the ad hoc summer school offerings of yesteryear won’t be enough. It’s essential that schools provide something bigger and better — and parents and community members can help make that happen.

Jessica Poiner is a senior education policy analyst for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

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