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Can summer school offset COVID-related learning loss? | COMMENTARY

FILE - In this Sept. 9, 2020, file photo, students wear protective masks as they arrive for classes at the Immaculate Conception School while observing COVID-19 prevention protocols in The Bronx borough of New York. Schools and camps across the county are making plans to help kids catch up academically this summer after a year or more of remote learning for many of them. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 9, 2020, file photo, students wear protective masks as they arrive for classes at the Immaculate Conception School while observing COVID-19 prevention protocols in The Bronx borough of New York. Schools and camps across the county are making plans to help kids catch up academically this summer after a year or more of remote learning for many of them. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File) (John Minchillo/AP)

In “Porgy and Bess,” George and Ira Gershwin memorably wrote “Summertime and the livin’ is easy.” But try to convince teachers and education administrators of that: They are already sweating under great pressure to provide big and better summer school to offset COVID-19 learning loss.

The bright side of the summer forecast is the abundance of federal relief and recovery funds for summer learning. The importance of summer school, especially for students who are poor and of color, was well-recognized before the pandemic.

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Yet, a few clouds are on the horizon as schools in Maryland and nationwide rush to plan for summer. How to stop “summer slide,” as researchers call it, has long stumped education policymakers. Research studies on the effectiveness of past summer school programs have been mixed at best. And no surprise, a key variable is student attendance.

The late Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University — a national expert on evidence-based practices, including summer school, right up until his death Saturday at age 70 — recently wrote that attendance in summer programs intended to help struggling students “can be very poor, and the motivation of those who do attend may also be poor.”

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However, according to the Education Commission of the States, several states already require compulsory summer attendance for students who fall significantly below grade level. And many states mandate summer attendance for students who are well below grade level in reading and want to avoid retention in grade. Mostly, these are so-called “third grade reading laws,” which seek to prevent students from falling behind early in learning to read and almost never catching up. (Maryland, regrettably, has no such laws.)

Unfortunately, no studies or national associations offer data on the value of coerced, if not compulsory, attendance. Nor have inquiries to various states netted such data.

Still, there are persuasive reasons to believe that mandatory requirements would benefit many children, particularly those in the early grades. One is equity. While most parents will be eager to voluntarily enroll their children, some parents will not — and the missing students are likely to be disproportionately those who need it the most.

Another reason to support mandatory summer school for struggling readers comes from an unexpected source: Baltimore City Public School System. Since around 2000, BCPSS has been a trailblazer in Maryland and nationwide in requiring failing students to attend summer school as a condition for avoiding retention in the same grade. As a member of the city school board, I helped to develop the policy and programs.

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The city programs have mainly linked summer school attendance to promotions to the next grade in middle schools. Full data is not available, but annual evaluations show that mandatory programs have proven their worth. Attendance, achievement and promotion rates in summer programs linked to promotion have been higher than those in other summer programs.

To be sure, not all educators, parents and students are sold on the idea. Many, after more than a year of COVID-19 pressures, crave a summer break. Some parents resent the interference with their summer plans. Some advocates think that the programs may come over as punitive, in effect penalizing parents and children for learning deficiencies that are the fault of the schools generally and COVID specifically. And this year, parental response may be heavily influenced by whether summer school will be in person or online.

Of course, a mandate is not the only, and certainly not the best, way to improve attendance. Friendly outreach to parents is one way. Safe, air-conditioned schools are another. Older students could be paid as part of schoolwork initiatives. And most fundamentally, the programs can be made more appealing.

The most pressing need is for intense instruction mainly through small-group tutoring. At the same time, students also have social and emotional catching up to do, so model summer programs should be well-rounded academically and recreationally. While teachers who volunteer for summer school may be in short supply, there is a sufficient pipeline of teacher-tutors including well-trained teaching assistants.

Another classic song from “Porgy and Bess” teaches that some things “ain’t necessarily so.” Summer learning loss can be one of them. We have the money and know-how to be rid of it. But we must find ways to get more of the most vulnerable students to dive in the summer learning pool.

Kalman R. Hettleman (khettleman@gmail.com), a former member of the Kirwan Commission and the Baltimore City school board, is an education policy analyst and advocate.

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