For everyone committed to educational equality, an ambitious new analysis from researchers at Stanford and Harvard today brings grim news. In most states studied, the gap in student achievement between low-income and high-income districts grew dramatically between 2019 and 2023, in many cases by a half-grade or more.
We have long known that student performance collapsed from pandemic closures. Two decades of gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress were erased. Scores on the ACT fell to a 30-year low. By one estimate, academic declines, if not recovered, will cost students $2 trillion in lifetime earnings. As always, already-marginalized students—mainly students of color living in urban areas—will be hit the hardest.
Ambitious plans unrealized
“This is a five-alarm fire, but most elected officials aren’t responding or even discussing it,” former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg lamented in a July op-ed. “There is no plan from Washington, no joint session of Congress, no Oval Office address.”
Pandemic learning loss has slipped off the front page, but children have not recovered lost ground. The staggering $189 billion Congress appropriated to the schools for Covid-19 relief came with sparse direction or accountability. Far too little has been spent on academic recovery, and the funds will sunset in September.
At first, school districts described ambitious plans for academic recovery, including tutoring, summer schools, extended-year schooling, and accelerated learning. But few of these plans were realized. In the face of a cascade of post-pandemic challenges, districts found that moving such measures from a plan to a pilot project and then to scale proved beyond their capacities.
CRPE and RAND closely tracked the recovery efforts of five school systems, ranging from 6,000 to 40,000 students. Last July we reported that, time and again, the districts’ recovery plans had been abandoned as they confronted disruptive student behaviors, the loss of experienced teachers, and the resulting crisis in the quality of Tier I instruction.
“High-dosage tutoring” had captured the imagination of many educators seeking to recover lost learning. Officials pointed to tutoring’s unrivaled effect sizes (albeit realized in contrived research conditions). But capable tutors were difficult to recruit and retain in the required numbers. Most had little or no teaching experience and shaky content knowledge, and districts had no practical means to train them. Students were confused when their tutor’s instruction conflicted with their teacher’s, as when their tutors deployed a standard algorithm in math when they were learning conceptually. Tutoring at scale proved a fantasy.
Getting serious about summer school
Fortunately, there remains an affordable and practicable alternative for academic recovery: summer learning. Equipped with highly refined daily lesson plans, professional educators can effectively engage many students at once. Rather than recruit and train an army of college students or parents, districts can tap and reward their existing teachers, who, in many cases, would otherwise seek summer jobs outside the district. Perhaps most importantly, summer provides essential supplemental time on task for intensive academic recovery.
It will take a decade for schools to dig out from the pandemic’s damage. There is no quick fix. But summer learning can play a vital part.
Durham, North Carolina schools have almost fully recovered from learning loss after district leaders called on their highest-performing teachers to lead summer school classes—and paid them nearly twice their traditional hourly rate. “We did not just give that opportunity to any person; we recruited the best,” Superintendent Pascal Mubenga told the New York Times.
RAND’s six-year analysis of summer learning programs, involving thousands of hours of observations and interviews, provides definitive guidance to districts. Programs should include at least 25 hours of math and 34 hours of language arts, recruit teachers with content knowledge, and deploy curricula tightly aligned to academic standards. Preparation should start early: RAND’s most emphatic recommendation is to start planning by January and dedicate a program director to the job.
Districts serious about academic recovery should retire their traditional summer school models: targeting failing students with remedial instruction or offering enrichment activities with little academic content. Neither is what students require in today’s crisis. Students who are only instructed in below-grade content will, by design, never catch up with their peers. Segregating them in summer classes away from their classmates who have the summer off will only deepen their alienation from school. Enrichment programs will also let down their students. Under the guise of project learning, unstructured activities generally fail to impart essential academic competencies.
The National Summer School Initiative, a nonprofit organization I cofounded in 2020 in response to shuttered schools, partners with districts and charters around the country to deliver five weeks of accelerated learning in math and English Language Arts. Each week, in a kind of national grade team meeting, teachers join their same-grade peers for ongoing professional development centered on the specific content they’re about to teach.
Led by NSSI’s “mentor teachers”—expert, often award-winning educators recruited from around the country—participating teachers are equipped and inspired to deliver discourse-rich instruction, where students reliably experience academic success in each day’s lesson.
Like sitting in the back of the class of the best teacher in the building, teachers observe their mentors’ moves—and have the chance to make them their own. Teachers arrive to summer classes unusually well prepared, confident, and invested in the content. When districts struggle with contractual constraints to secure even one additional day a year for professional development, summer provides desperately needed time to build teacher capacity—and strengthen Tier I instruction throughout the year.
In many American classrooms, children listlessly flip through undistinguished books from an educational publisher’s “leveled reading” library. It should not surprise us that they don’t like to read. In NSSI’s daily literature class, we instead ask students to read and discuss one exceptionally engaging, culturally responsive novel. By taking unusual care in both the novel’s selection and the daily discussion questions, we hope to begin to change children’s attitudes toward reading.
Even in the elementary grades, the novels must engage sophisticated questions that evade pat responses. Young children, we remind ourselves, may be small in stature but they have big ideas about the world. Third-graders graders, enchanted by Eden Royce’s tale Root Magic, wonder: Should I stay true to my roots or be free to create my own path? Fifth-graders, devouring Veera Hiranandani’s The Whole Story of Half a Girl, ask: Why might I tell my whole story—and why not? In class, children spar with their classmates over the book’s themes. They learn that ideas matter. Their ideas matter.
In math class, students explore a single real-world problem, devise their own approaches to its solution, and contrast them with their classmates’ strategies. In the discourse portion of the lesson, children see how each approach arrived at the same answer. The beauty of math is revealed, and deep conceptual understanding is built. Students are excited to reach for a classmate’s more efficient procedure the next time they encounter a similar problem.
Since its inception, NSSI’s partner districts have helped more than 100,000 students stay on track to the next grade—and college and career. Last summer, the New York City schools partnered with NSSI to educate 31,000 students at 126 summer sites. Across all partners’ summer programs, students made marked gains in proficiency in every grade in both math and ELA. For example, in grade 8, only 23 percent of students were found proficient in the targeted math skills when the program began; at its conclusion, 55 percent were. In ELA, five percent were found proficient at the start; by the program’s end, 40 percent were. By experiencing small successes every day, students’ attitudes toward learning were often altered. “I had to stop them from reading ahead!” one seventh-grade literature teacher shared.
“So why are the millions of children performing below grade level not in summer school?” Bloomberg asked in his piece. “America is missing a critical opportunity and, sadly, tragic consequences will result.” He’s right. It is time to commit to summer learning for all children the pandemic has left at risk. We can do it, inexpensively, at scale, everywhere.