It isn’t hard to find people praising summer school–and rightly so. It’s certainly one way of fighting summer learning loss. According to a Rand Corporation study, the average student starts school one month behind where he or she ended the previous school year. You can get the whole study here. The effect is even greater for low-income students and widens achievement gaps.
That being the case, why would I even raise the question? Because there are different approaches to summer school, and some of them are decidedly better than others.
When I was a student, there were two types of summer program, both of which we still have: credit recovery and enrichment. Credit recovery is a way for students who have failed a class or who earned a grade their college of choice won’t accept for credit to retake a class. That’s much easier than the alternative–trying to crowd more school work into the school year. Clearly, someone who may already be having trouble academically isn’t likely to do better by having to make up a class and continue his or her regular studies simultaneously.
Not quite credit recovery but also designed for students who may need academic help are programs designed to help those students boost their academic skills. A program like this can be valuable because they can focus on one subject or skill in a way that they couldn’t easily accomplish during the school year.
For those who don’t need to make up credits or get extra help, summer can be a great time for enrichment opportunities. Students can pursue subjects which couldn’t be included in the regular school curriculum. Where high school and college calendars are compatible, students can sometimes take college level courses during the summer quarter. (That’s one good reason for high school-college partnerships.)
Unfortunately, since my student days a third kind of summer program has been added, sometimes (misleadingly) called get-ahead. The concept looks good on paper: students take required subjects during the summer so that they have more flexibility in their schedules during the school year. Consequently, students are able to pursue subjects that interest them and/or fit into their college and career plans, some of which they might not be able to take otherwise.
There is, however, one catch: the problem of time-on-task. Calendars vary, so to illustrate my point, I’ll use the calendar in my former school district. The regular school year is 180 days. Summer school is 24. Even allowing for longer class periods in summer school, (53 minutes vs. 320), the time available to cover what should be a year-long course shrinks considerably. The result: 9,540 instructional minutes for a class during the school year, 7,680 for a class during the summer. Plug in the numbers for your school district to see what you get.
Those numbers are misleading, however, because they measure only class time for the regular school year but all time (including breaks) for summer school. The numbers also don’t take into account the battle between the adolescent attention span and anything remotely approaching five hours dealing with one subject. Even a creative (and entertaining) teacher is going to be hard-pressed getting as much mileage out of the minutes nearer the end of the five-hour span.
Given the realities of the situation, it’s hard to imagine that taking a summer school class is the same thing as taking a regular school class. Get-ahead begins to look a little more like get-behind, because students who take the class during the summer are getting less–perhaps far less–than their peers who took the class during the school year.
One response I used to get when I made that argument was that the classes taken during the summer were the “unimportant ones,” at least from the point of view of that student or parent. My question is this: if the classes are unimportant, why are they required? It seems to me there are only two possibilities here. Either the class is unimportant, in which case it shouldn’t be required for graduation or as a condition of college admission, or it is important, in which case we should at the very least require that students demonstrate mastery in the same way we ask students during the school to demonstrate it–by taking the same final exam and performing at a reasonable level.
Being the mischievous soul that I am, I actually suggested that course of action on more than one occasion. Needless to say, the suggestion went exactly nowhere, though some administrators did privately conceded that the reason was that summer school students would obviously not perform as well as their regular year peers. I was always darkly amused to hear the same administrators proclaim later the importance of nurturing get-ahead programs–which they’d privately agreed weren’t the most effective alternative.
There were rare moments when someone came close to agreeing with me. At one point, concern was expressed over a student who hadn’t taken one history class during the school year. (Yes, he “summer-schooled” three years worth of classes in the same subject area.) Once a school board president, who happened to be a medical doctor, wondered if a student could truly absorb a whole year of science in twenty-four days. Much more often, students acknowledged how little they had gotten out of summer school.
Of course, graduation requirements, like most other aspects of education, probably shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all situation–more about that in a later post. I’d be perfectly happy to see a system in which students could test out of a required course that was too easy for them or use alternative means to master the material. I’d also be in favor of graduation requirements individualized to reflect a student’s goals better. What I’m not happy with is the pretense, unsupported by evidence, that students who’ve done summer school coursework have the same level of skill or knowledge as students who had more time to master the same course of study.
It’s also worth point out that not everybody uses “get-ahead” programs to actually get ahead. Many students use them to give themselves an easier senior year or for other nonacademic reasons. It might be worth the effort to see how a summer school get ahead program fit the educational goals of a student seeking admission to it.
Yes, I know I sound a little grumpy. I’m really not. However, knowing how short the high school experience is, I want students to take full advantage of that experience. Some people do use get-ahead programs to do that–but many don’t.