The Disruptive Summer

As students, teachers, and parents across the country are settling in for the start of another school year, I’ll confess that I’m still a bit stuck reflecting summer. And it’s not that I’m just feeling particularly wistful for a longer vacation. For all of the joy and freedom that we typically associate with summer, I fear that we often fail to recognize its associated risks for millions of children. In the process, we also miss out on one of our greatest opportunities to foster innovation that can fundamentally transform teaching and learning.

Summer disrupts formal education in the U.S.—if only for three months out of the year—unlike any other singular force at work in the system. That disruption can either continue to exacerbate inequality, or it can be used purposefully to test new ideas, personalize learning, and shatter boundaries around when, where, and how teaching takes place.

Simply put, there is no other time of year when our most vulnerable children spend more time unsupervised, experience more hunger, and lose more ground academically. With the exception of our nation’s libraries, most public institutions and agencies either close completely or dramatically scale back their offerings. These systematic closures coupled with the traditional nine-month school calendar have a profoundly disruptive impact on the education of young people.

More than 30 empirical studies have confirmed a pattern of “summer learning loss,” which a recent report by the RAND Corporation cites as a significant contributor to the achievement gap between low-income students and their higher-income peers. While all kids are at risk of deterioration in knowledge and skills over the summer months, low-income students face the greatest losses. On average, low-income students lose more than two months of reading performance every summer between the kindergarten and fifth grade years. Those annual losses accumulate and result in a gap of as much as two years of academic performance by the time students reach middle school.

This fall, teachers will spend as much as four to six weeks of the new school year re-teaching material from the previous year. It’s difficult to imagine any other enterprise interested in producing long-term, sustainable results, and relationships that would choose to schedule its operations in the manner of our public schools. Summer disrupts formal education in the U.S.—if only for three months out of the year—unlike any other singular force at work in the system.

That disruption can either continue to exacerbate inequality, or it can be used purposefully to test new ideas, personalize learning, and shatter boundaries around when, where, and how teaching takes place. After years of lamenting the former, I’m beginning to feel a bit more optimistic about the latter. A recent conversation with Michael Horn, executive director of the Innosight Institute, sparked my thinking about the extent to which summers are an ideal space for “disruptive innovation” in education.

Horn and his colleagues describe a disruptive innovation as one that transforms an existing market or sector—or creates a new one—by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, reliability, and affordability, where before the product or service was complicated, expensive, and inaccessible. It is initially formed in a narrow foothold market or niche that appears unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents.

It’s hard to imagine a foothold or niche in the education space that initially appeared more universally unattractive or inconsequential to teachers and students alike than the summer. The earliest models of summer school were offered as punitive, remedial interventions targeting only those students who did not learn that which was required during the regular school year. Summer school was costly, poorly attended, and offered inconsistently.

What’s beginning to emerge in the summer space is a dynamic marketplace of learning opportunities. Nonprofit organizations like Think Together, Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools, Summer Advantage USA, BELL, Horizons, and others are engaging school districts in large-scale partnerships to serve hundreds of thousands of low-income children with high-quality, full-day summer learning programs that emphasize both academic learning and social/emotional development. These programs are not only reversing summer learning loss, but actually producing academic gains.

In addition, there’s a burgeoning field of online, digital summer learning interventions that offer students personalized support and customized practice on key academic skills and concepts. With recent budget cuts, more districts are offering lower-cost, online summer school courses like those offered by Apex Learning or Khan Academy.

One model that I’m particularly impressed with is TenMarks, an affordable online summer math program that uses hints, video lessons, and instant interventions to refresh and master concepts, and an integrated offering of practice, instruction, assessment, and intervention. This program and others like it demonstrate that we can effectively use low-cost, digital learning during the summer months to reach millions of students who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to attend a full-day program.

These models are important in their own right in terms of addressing the problem of summer learning loss. But they also have the potential to drive broader changes in education. For example, Summer Advantage is opening new charter schools in the state of Indiana based on lessons learned from their summer program. Organizations like Alliance Blast in Los Angeles and School of One in New York originally used the summer months to pilot their new models of blended learning that dramatically reduce the costs of education.

What happens at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday in October matters considerably more to teachers, principals, and superintendents than what happens at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday in July. I suspect that is not likely to change anytime soon, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But I’m excited about the opportunity that offers us to drive meaningful change in education—both for the sake of ending summer learning loss for low-income kids and, more important, for transforming what happens the other nine months of the year.

Ron Fairchild is the founder of the Smarter Learning Group and former CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. The Association’s work built on over 15 years of experience and success association has grown from a local program to a national intermediary organization that works with a 50-state network of more than 5,000 summer learning program providers that collectively serve more than 2 million young people annually. Fairchild is widely recognized as a national authority on how to expand learning opportunities for young people. He has authored numerous publications and speaks regularly on topics related to public policy, research, and models of effective summer learning programs. His frequent appearances in the media include segments on NPR, CNN, C-SPAN, NBC Nightly News, and the CBS Early Show.

This article is commissioned by Amplify Education Inc. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not represent those of Amplify Education Inc.