How summer school can help close achievement gaps

It is widely known that minority students and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds enter kindergarten already behind their more advantaged peers. As they move through school, these students continue to face many disadvantages that create achievement gaps and impact their educational attainment. Often absent from the achievement gap discourse, however, is the critical impact that summer learning opportunities can make upon a student’s academic growth and development.

During the summer, students from different socio-economic backgrounds are generally exposed to vastly different learning opportunities and home and neighborhood environments. This disparity causes a huge divide in summer learning rates. Research shows that this summer learning disparity causes achievement gaps to widen more than any other factor. When I considered some of my past experiences as a teacher, this statistic did not surprise me.

On my first official day as a high school English teacher, I gave my students a simple homework assignment: write a narrative about your summer. The prompt was broad–they could write about the best day of their summer, or the worst; about something they struggled with during the summer, or something they achieved. They could write about one moment, or they could tell me about every single thing that happened to them, from June until August. I just wanted a writing sample from each of my students that would give me a sense of their writing abilities, and also allow me to get to know them a bit.

Many of my students approached me after class to tell me that they didn’t think they had experienced one thing worth writing about over the course of the summer. I assured them that they all had a story to share, but they insisted. “I did nothing,” they said. “Next summer I’ll be old enough to work, but this summer, I just sat on the couch. Did some chores. That’s it.”

When I read through their essays, it became clear just how different summer breaks were for my students than they had been for myself and my classmates. I grew up in an affluent community in suburban Philadelphia, where summer meant camp, museums, organized sports, reading, hiking, and trips to the beach. When I was young, my mom bought workbooks for my siblings and I to complete, to make sure we didn’t forget what we had learned during the school year. When I was old enough to work, workbook time was replaced by a part-time job. Many of my students wrote just what they’d told me–that they babysat their younger siblings, and sat on the couch. Other students, who were old enough to work, wrote about how they saved up all summer to go on one date to the movies. The rest of their money was spent on food.

It was clear, from this exercise alone, that my students–like many students from lower socio-economic backgrounds–did not have access to the same summer learning opportunities as many students in more affluent communities.

Given the importance of summer academic growth to a student’s educational attainment, summer school can be crucial for students who have fallen further behind in key content areas over the course of their schooling, or for students who wish to close knowledge and literacy gaps to ensure future academic success. Summer school alone cannot close the nationwide achievement gap or end education inequity, but it can help prevent the “summer slide” that occurs for students who do not have access to learning opportunities at home and in their communities over the course of the summer.

Summer school attendance is often low compared to school year attendance. However, research suggests that methods that help to increase attendance during the school year–such as positively engaging parents and students–can help improve summer school attendance as well. This summer, several summer school programs in New York City, including Practice Makes Perfect and Teachers College REACH, will be using KiNVO by Kinvolved to manage attendance data, inform instant interventions, and communicate with families about attendance and summer school progress.

KiNVO, Kinvolved’s mobile and web app, enables K-12 school staff to access informative attendance data and to engage families through real-time, translated text messaging. Teachers and administrators can use the app to track period and daily attendance, send real-time SMS/email alerts to families, and record lost instructional minutes.

Many summer school courses provide condensed versions of core curricula taught during the school year, and most summer school programs are only about 20 to 25 school days long. In this expedited learning environment, in which teachers must cover a lot of ground and students must process a substantial amount of content in a very short time, every minute in the classroom truly matters. Research shows that real-time text alerts to parents can help decrease lost instructional minutes, and thus, improve student outcomes. Engaging and empowering parents helps increase attendance and reduce class failure and drop-out rates, and automated text-messaging is an easy and affordable way for schools to do so.

When I taught Algebra II at summer school in Oklahoma, most of my students were taking the class in preparation for their last attempt to pass a state math exam required for graduation. My co-teachers and I were able to help them pass the test and get the math credit they needed to graduate because they rarely missed instructional time. We discussed the importance of attendance with our students and their parents from the start to ensure that our students would achieve their goals for the course. When a student did miss class, we contacted their parents. KiNVO can help facilitate these discussions.

KiNVO provides data that helps users identify chronically and frequently absent students right away, which will enable summer school teachers and administrators to engage their parents from the start and ensure that they are present at summer school as much as possible. This summer, we will be looking at summer school school attendance data and KiNVO user data to assess KiNVO’s impact on summer school attendance. Using this analysis, we aim to determine how we can further support summer school teachers and administrators with attendance in the future.

Hope McLaughlin is a LEE Education Policy and Advocacy Fellow doing impact and engagement research at Kinvolved this summer. She formerly taught High School English & Journalism in Colorado Springs.