SATELINE :Summer School: Rx for Low Performance?

By Pipho, Chris | Phi Delta Kappan, September 1999 | Go to article overview

SATELINE :Summer School: Rx for Low Performance?

Pipho, Chris, Phi Delta Kappan

AS MORE states and school districts move to implement tough standards and assessment programs, they have found themselves forced to sponsor remedial programs for low-performing students. Mandated summer school has become the solution of choice. All of this is in part being pushed along by the availability of money and by the strong support for high-stakes consequences. But states and districts are also increasingly concerned about the possibility of litigation when high-stakes assessments and bans on social promotion are mandated.

The summer of 1999 saw a rapid expansion of summer school remediation. New York City provided make-up help for 70,000 students and is expected to increase this number to as many as 300,000 next year. Chicago started a ban on social promotion three years ago and had nearly 30,000 students enrolled this past summer. Other cities with burgeoning summer school enrollments include Houston, with 8,000 students; Boston, with 6,500; Denver, with 6,000; Los Angeles, with 139,000; and the District of Columbia, with 30,000.

Implementation Challenges

Perhaps one of the more formidable challenges to summer remediation programs is the lack of research showing that such programs work. Currently, however, the a priori assumption that more time focused on remediation in the basic skills will bring low-performing students up to grade seems to be driving the movement. And when policy makers see polls showing increased parent support for using summer school time and when private vendors are entering this "vacuum" with off-the-shelf programs, it's easy to see why states and districts are reaching out to expand these programs.

The spring 1999 issue of the Educational Research Service's publication Spectrum included an article on a three-year evaluation of a Math Power summer program in Montgomery County, Maryland. The three-week program for low-performing third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders was serving 2,840 students in 176 classrooms at 30 sites when the study was completed in 1997. The authors of the study summarized their findings:

"Disappointingly, the district's analysis of student progress on math assessments showed little benefit from the program. The authors consider the possible reasons for this failure and suggest that the poor effects of the program stem from teachers' use of traditional strategies that relied on directive, teacher-centered instruction rather than on the inquiry-based activities that were supposed to form the basis of the program's curriculum."

While the findings were not encouraging, this was not an evaluation of the use of summer school so much as a study of the mismatch between the inquiry-based program and the methods teachers used. But teachers may have felt the need to cover as much material as possible in the 45 hours of student contact and so relied on old habits instead of following prescribed plans.

Although this is just a single research study, some other districts are finding that their programs were also less than successful. The public schools in Seattle ran an "academic boot camp" for 500 low-performing fifth-graders in the summer of 1998. The program was not offered in 1999 because only a few students were able to raise their achievement levels high enough to be promoted to the sixth grade.

In Minneapolis, the district's director of research, reporting on the 1998 summer program, said that many students made academic gains, but "only 10% to 15% of the 1,900 fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-graders who attended summer sessions are on track to pass the Basic Standards Tests required to get a high school diploma." Other challenges for summer school operation include finding qualified teachers, finding properly equipped classrooms, providing transportation, and getting parent cooperation to ensure high attendance.

In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers has negotiated a contract that pays summer school teachers $32 per hour. …

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