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What If Kids Could Depend on Their School All 12 Months of the Year, Not Just 10

Funding for summer schools in New York City has been in deep decline since 2000. That year, New York City ran the  nation’s largest summer school program, sending 360,000 students—roughly one-third of its 1.1 million students. At the time, New York City was  spending $300 million per year on summer instruction, while the total  New York City Department of Education school budget was just over $11 billion. Fast forward to 2016: The summer school programming budget fell to  just $66 million—a steep dive—while the total budget, which represents money received each year from a combination of city, state and federal sources, had nearly tripled to just north of $29 billion! To add insult to injury, that $66 million was supposed to support a few more than 150,000 students—in other words, about one-fifth 2000’s funds to educate fewer than half the number of students. With figures like this, it won’t come as a surprise that proficiency rates have not improved drastically since 2000. In fact, the state assessments reveal that they may  actually be worse. Based on last year’s numbers, only 38 percent of students were proficient in English language arts and only 39 percent were proficient in math. To be sure, many critics will argue that the state assessments are not an accurate indicator of a student’s proficiency, or that the exams may have gotten more challenging with the new Common Core standards. Also, it’s important to recognize that legislative priorities may also have impacted spending. For example, when former President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the legislation earmarked funds to go to struggling schools that were not meeting state proficiency standards. New York City was an obvious recipient of a large amount of those earmarked funds with the largest high-poverty urban school district in the country. But its measures, like School Improvement Grants, a program that gave large sums of money to struggling schools to be used to improve proficiency, fell short in driving long-term outcomes. The eased accountability standards that are allowing what many would call a form of “social promotion” are not used across the board. In fact, the  single largest indicator of the type of school a student attends for high school is largely driven by their proficiency scores on the state assessments. Students who perform poorly wind up in lower-performing high schools that diminish, instead of bolster, their prospects of attaining a high-quality, post-secondary education. So if more than 60 percent of students are not on grade-level or proficient by state standards, and the effects of the summer learning loss—the phenomenon whereby students in low-income neighborhoods  forget almost three months of what they learned during the school year over the summer—are well-documented, why aren’t more students receiving intervention over the summer? Though I try to simplify the answer in my TED talk, “A Summer School Kids Actually Want to Attend,” the answer is a little bit more complex. In order to fully appreciate its intricacy, we need to go back to the origins of our school calendar and dispel three myths. New York City is the focus of my analysis because it has the largest public school system in the nation and is often referenced when decisions are made across the country—but the lessons learned could be applied to any state. Distorted “fact” #1: The reason schools have such a long summer break is because children growing up in rural areas needed time off to work the farms back when the United States was an agricultural powerhouse. This is completely wrong. According to Kenneth Gold, a historian at the College of Staten Island, school on the agrarian calendar was a short winter term and a short summer term. Kids in agricultural areas were needed more in the spring, when crops had to be planted, and in the fall, when crops had to be harvested and sold. In fact, many rural kids attended school in the summer when there was less need for them on the farm. Gold contends that historically, urban schools had a very different school schedule, but also included summer. School was open year-round but was not compulsory, and children came when they could. By the 1840s, New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia all had about 11 months of school. In 1842, New York City schools were open 248 days a year—practically 60 days longer than the 180-day school calendar we have now. In his book "School’s In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools," Gold describes how the current school calendar was born out of compromise and a desire for standardization. Before air-conditioning, wealthy and middle-class urbanites would leave the city to avoid the sweltering heat, which made the summer months an obvious time to create a school holiday. According to Gold:
By the late 19th century, school reformers started pushing for standardization of the school calendar across urban and rural areas. So a compromise was struck that created the modern school calendar. A long break would give teachers needed time to train and give kids a break. The cycles of farming had nothing to do with it.
Because there are  education reformers who cite the reason for summer break as being a result of the agrarian calendar, making the case for a universal makeover of summer will be challenging, thereby only perpetuating the challenges of the summer learning loss. Distorted “fact” #2: Summer school has always been where we send failing students. This isn’t true. In New York City,  fewer than 10 percent of children are sent to summer school, even though  more than 60 percent of children are considered to be failing by state standards. Thus, not every child who is failing is sent to summer school. In fact, summer school for failing students did not become a huge phenomenon until  1995, when New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani vowed to end social promotion in city schools. Prior to that year, summer school was only for high school students who had needed credits for a particular class that they struggled with or couldn’t take during the school year. Social promotion is the practice of promoting students to the next grade level even though they have not yet learned the material they were taught or have not achieved expected learning standards. Giuliani’s theory: instead of holding students who failed the state proficiency tests back a year, education officials would send them to summer school for a second chance. After all, having a student go to school during the summer would be  significantly cheaper than having them repeat an entire school year. Moreover, holding kids back has been found to hurt students on their pathway to proficiency instead of helping them. A  2001 longitudinal study found that 71 percent of students who were retained just one year eventually dropped out. Students that were retained two or more times dropped out 80 percent of the time, and if they were retained once in elementary school and once in middle school, they dropped out 94 percent of the time. The social and economic implications of a high-school dropout is one explanation for why we’ve defaulted to social promotion. The United States Census Bureau estimates that dropouts bring in just $20,241 annually, making the lifetime earnings of high school dropouts $260,000 less than those who completed high school. American Graduate estimates that half of the United States population receiving public assistance is composed of high school dropouts. What’s even more unsettling is that over  80 percent of the incarcerated population is composed of high school dropouts. Thus, before Giuliani’s reform, social promotion had historically been favored over grade retention as the lesser of two evils when a student is not proficient. New York City’s ultimately substantive investment in summer school was an attempt to meet somewhere in the middle. Other cities were quick to emulate New York City. Unfortunately, the attempts fell short. Despite the good intentions behind favoring remedial summer school, the idea that only struggling or failing children attend it created a negative aura around being in school over the summer. To this day, the stigma persists. In my experience, the stigma has extended beyond the students, and there are school leaders who have chosen not to support extended programming during the summer because of their belief that education and learning cannot be fun over the summer. Distorted “fact” #3: If students do not pass summer school or the the state assessments at the end of summer school, they automatically have to repeat the grade. This myth only adds further to the stigma of summer school and hampers its success. More often than not, kids who do not pass summer school or pass the state assessments at the end of summer school are promoted anyway. Besides the aforementioned benefits of social promotion, the New York City schools chancellor does not have the ability to mandate summer school attendance. Thus, it’s not unreasonable to assert that the kids have the final say in choosing whether or not to participate. In 2000, at the height of summer school budgeting, then-chancellor Harold Levy shared that  summer school was not compulsory and that the most schools could do was threaten to hold students back a grade. But because summer school could not be mandatory, kids did not show up—no matter how much or how little was invested in summer school programming. In 1999, the Board of Education in New York City was  budgeting $175 million of its $11.5 billion budget to send 330,000 students for summer instruction, roughly the same number of kids from the year before with almost half of the funds. What was even more embarrassing is that summer school attendance hovered between 50 to 60 percent from  1999 to  2003. So all of that money was spent, and there was very little to show in terms of progress or achievement.

So What’s the Future of Summer School?

Additional support for students who are not on grade level at the end of the school year sounds like a genius idea. And it is. Unfortunately, these myths caused damage that has been hard to reverse, preventing kids from benefitting from the very real educational possibilities summer school has to offer. Between dismal student attendance and flatlining proficiency rates, no wonder there ended up being a reduction in investment over time. Metis Associates’ report on summer school found the program to be largely ineffective, and the dismal attendance rates  invited critics who suggested remedial resources should be focused during the regular academic year, when attendance is higher. In 2016, New York City’s school chancellor Carmen Fariña made a big announcement to expand summer school and rebrand the stigmatized program. The changes were a huge step in the right direction. Some of the changes included adding an evidence-based curriculum, removing high-stakes tests and strongly encouraging students who are excelling academically to attend summer school. It’s too early to tell whether the efforts have been successful—though having an idea of what success is could be extremely beneficial. In my experience working with schools for almost seven years, it’s incredibly clear that even the most well-run schools struggle to find the additional motivation and capacity to operate high-quality programs over the summer. Moreover, schools are provided with only modest stipends, less than $500 per student over the summer to support learning and enrichment. Lastly, not many educators are excited about working over the summer in an antiquated school model. If summer school is going to be successful, it has to be designed in a way that kids want to attend. That means rethinking the way summer school operates and including things that resonate with children. For example, building relationships with older peers who live in their neighborhoods, academic competitions like spelling bees, field trips to cultural institutions and old fashioned spirit days, to name a few. We have the knowhow to make school and education fun over the summer for all children. Today, we’re calling for a moral imperative for our system to act on that knowledge to ensure that even our most socioeconomically disadvantaged students can continue their learning over the summer. Thanks to the heightened awareness around the summer learning loss, summer school programs are slowly gaining traction again. Reimagining the summer school experience as a place of fun, vibrant continued learning can help ensure that another sizable contraction does not take place, which will allow low-income kids and their families to reliably depend on their schools not just for 10, but 12 months of the year.
An original version of this post appeared on LinkedIn as Three Myths That Have Traditionally Stymied New York City Summer Schools.
Photo courtesy of Practice Makes Perfect.
Karim Abouelnaga
Karim Abouelnaga is the Founder and CEO of  Practice Makes Perfect, an evidence-based, full-service summer school provider for K-8 schools.

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