Summer Boost Possibility in Stopping COVID Decline

An educational initiative launched in 2022 to address COVID-related learning setbacks is yielding positive outcomes, as per a recent study: last year’s four-week participation in the Summer Boost program helped students recover approximately 25% of their reading skills and 33% of their math skills compared to non-participants.

Sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies and other backers, the initiative caters to charter school students preparing for grades 1 through 9.  

An investigation by Arizona State University involving over 35,000 Summer Boost students in eight cities revealed that students made around three to four weeks’ worth of reading progress and about four to five weeks’ worth in math within just 22 days. This progress equates to recovering about 22% of the learning loss in reading and 31% in math.

While all student groups experienced improvement, English Language Learners exhibited the most significant growth, achieving nearly seven to eight weeks of learning in a little over four weeks. Notably, students transitioning to grades 4-8 showed accelerated progress.  

“The fact that these outcomes are seen pretty consistently across thousands of kids and multiple cities, I think that lends even more power to these results.”

Geoffrey Borman, Arizona State University

The study’s participants were from Baltimore, Birmingham, Indianapolis, Memphis, Nashville, New York City, San Antonio, and Washington, D.C. 

Schools partaking in Summer Boost have the option to adopt a provided curriculum or use their own high-quality one, although researchers observed that about one-third of schools utilized a “balanced curricular approach,” focusing on both academics and enriching activities, as noted by ASU’s Geoffrey Borman, the study’s lead researcher.

Schools that struck this balance, Borman added, had the most positive impact on students. 

In the broader context of summer education, Borman highlighted the challenges of ensuring student attendance and engagement during the summer, along with attracting top-tier teachers when both students and teachers typically prefer the break.

Thus, schools are encouraged to allocate a significant portion of their budget towards teacher remuneration, said Sunny Larson, K-12 Education Program Lead at Bloomberg. This incentive, she emphasized, successfully brought experienced educators back to classrooms.

Many schools prioritized hiring teachers who had previous experience with the students during the school year, fostering continuity that Borman believed was beneficial. 

Previous research indicates that most students are stagnant in their pandemic recovery, requiring approximately four additional months of schooling to reach pre-pandemic levels. According to 2023 findings from NWEA, ninth-graders need a full extra year of schooling to catch up. 

Morgan Polikoff, an education professor at the University of Southern California, while optimistic about the results, emphasized the importance of long-term impact assessment throughout the school year.

“While I think many have the perception that summer school is rarely effective, these results show that well designed summer programs can indeed be a helpful tool to help catch children up or accelerate their growth,” Polikoff stated. The findings suggest that Summer Boost’s impact is “very promising — on par with regular school-year learning rates.”

‘Effective guardrails’ in place

The program mandates at least 90 minutes of English Language Arts and math instruction daily with a student-teacher ratio set at 25:1. To receive full funding, summer programs must maintain a minimum daily attendance rate of 70%—these are deemed as “effective guardrails” ensuring high-quality delivery, as per Borman.

While recruitment methods vary, schools are advised to target students who stand to benefit the most. 

Summer Boost was conceived in 2022, drawing inspiration from Michael Bloomberg’s analogy likening pandemic-induced academic setbacks to “the educational equivalent of long COVID.”

“Summer is the most underused — and unequal — time of year educationally,” remarked Thomas Kane, an adviser to the research from Harvard University. “With so many students far behind, I hope this study inspires more school districts to expand their summer learning options.”

Summer is the most underused — and unequal — time of year educationally. I hope this study inspires more school districts to expand their summer learning options.

Tom Kane, Harvard University

Kane highlighted Texas’ initiative to extend the school year beyond 180 days, incentivizing districts to compensate for the instructional time lost during the pandemic. 

Kristen Huff, the vice president of assessment and research at Curriculum Associates, whose i-Ready tests assisted in evaluating the program’s efficacy, expressed satisfaction with the positive outcomes. 

“There is real urgency to use summer programs to provide specific, personalized support for struggling students so that they can return to school ready for grade-level work,” she emphasized. “Assessing students relative to grade level standards is the most accurate way to understand where they are and what support they need.”

Huff added that Curriculum Associates will soon release research revealing that student academic growth still requires further progress to reach pre-pandemic levels, particularly among younger students. “The Summer Boost program results underscore this, and show that when given the right supports, students can accelerate their learning.”

In the latest ASU analysis, researchers acknowledged some limitations. They conceded that the findings are based on a single year of data and lack long-term impact evidence. They suggested that as more years of data are amassed and the sample size grows, the findings may evolve. 

Additionally, many student records in the dataset were incomplete, lacking pre- or post-test scores for either math or reading.   

Crucially absent were key student demographic details, impeding the analysis of scores concerning factors like race, gender, and socioeconomic status. Furthermore, the lack of data on students’ enrollment process reduces researchers’ ability to compare Summer Boost with other summer programs having distinct admission criteria. 

Borman remarked that obtaining such robust results from a large student cohort is rare, emphasizing the significance of the consistent positive outcomes across numerous students and cities.

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