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July 1, 2022

Summer School: Progressive or Punitive?

Is summer school a progressive institution that propels students forward and sets the foundation for accelerated success in the classroom?

Or is summer school a punishment for those students lagging behind your state’s academic standards?

Either way you look at it, summer and school go together like oil and water. Or fire and wood. Or sulfuric acid and human flesh. Whichever visual metaphor you prefer, most consider summer a sacred season of rest and recreation. At least, that’s the ideal. It doesn’t always work that way though. And the way institutions leverage the summer months may evolve in the not-too-distant future.

Answering the Summer School Question

Is summer school progressive or punitive? It depends on who you ask.

Regardless of what we may think of it, it looks like increased summertime education is on the horizon. If you’re wondering why now, look no further than the two-plus-year pandemic that demolished and reestablished the traditional model of school almost overnight. To that end, President Biden asked Congress to approve $29 billion in funding for summer programs and tutoring as part of pandemic stimulus efforts.

And where there’s money, there’s movement.

If you’re an educator, you know the reality of summer. Filled with professional development and proactive planning, it’s hardly a three-month break. Regardless of their situation, most any teacher we know would prefer to see summer school as a positive framework that accelerates academic growth.

Students, on the other hand, likely view summer entirely differently. While some kids in the U.S. attend school year-round, many enjoy days filled with swimming pools, PlayStation, and streaming entertainment. For them, it’s hard to see summer school as anything but punitive.

For some kids, however, summer school provides a vehicle to get ahead on their studies or graduate earlier. In fact, according to one case study out of an Idaho school district, even students playing catchup after a tough school year find value in attending classes in June and July.

While answers to the progressive or punitive question are mixed, it’s important to steer the conversation in a positive direction. Let us ask not what summer school is, but what it could be.

Rerouting the Summer School Threat

If you think back to when you were a student, do you remember anyone treating summer school as an opportunity for progress? Chances are, your teachers and caregivers positioned summer school as a threat to make you work hard to earn the reward of a break.

Since everything starts with perception, it’s time we change the reputation of extended school years. As Stephanie Nicole, an elementary school teacher and writer, points out, we need to reframe the way we define summer school:

“[…] the problem with summer school as a threat is you make remediation for learning gaps over the summer sound like it will result in a loss of time during summer vacation. You also make learning in general sound like a punishment. We are taught in our teacher prep training we are supposed to make learning fun, but we make the idea of [an extended school year] sound like it is the antithesis of fun.”

Ms. Nicole is right. If summer school is about to become more common, and we want to maximize the positive results, it’s up to teachers to reframe the experience. Admittedly a tough task, this effort will demand:

  • Leveraging the fact that learning is a lifelong endeavor that doesn’t pause once the end of May rolls around
  • Scheduling classes in a way that affords breaks, which are important to a young person’s intellectual development and mental health
  • Espousing the benefits of getting ahead, making early progress, and having more breathing room once the traditional semester begins
  • Communicating with students who are progressing at a steady speed and those who need more time in certain disciplines
  • Providing stakeholders with data that ensures continued funding

As much as society expects of us, no teacher can pull this off alone. It’s going to take a concerted and collective effort. But who knows what shape the initiative will take as it moves closer to becoming the norm?

The Benefits of Summer School

Single subject focuses

As every teacher knows, student achievement can sometimes be a compartmentalized thing. The student who excels at math may fall short of reading comprehension standards. Though we’ve made great strides in creating IEPs that allow for concentrated study, summer school can put a singular focus on a student’s principal struggle. In this way, the student who attends summer school will fill in the gaps and be prepared for the upcoming academic year.

Decluttering the fall semester

Extracurricular activities, after-school responsibilities, and advanced placement classes can create a chaotic situation for any student. As kids inch closer to college, they often tackle more responsibilities that make their star shine brighter on university applications. The trouble happens when multiplying commitments pile up and an otherwise strong academic performance fizzles out. Summer school allows students to knock out some of their academic requirements before adding more to their agenda during the regular school year.

Bridging the achievement gap

We can’t sugarcoat what the hard data make clear: Some students deal with sizable disadvantages, normally through no fault of their own. Whether they’re struggling with a socioeconomic challenge or a learning difference, summer school will help these students thrive despite obstacles.

Stopping the summer slide

As the research out of Harvard University makes clear, the mind benefits from a break only to a point. The summer slide, which often negates a student’s progress in the previous school year, is a dangerous ride to take. It makes perfect sense that the only way to combat this scenario is to establish an ongoing continuity in education.

Making Your Time Count

As some schools transition to year-round calendars, teachers find themselves facing yet another challenge. Even though institutions that have made this switch boast ample break time, the removal of summer vacation means kids and parents have to make some adjustments. And let’s face facts: Change is very often uncomfortable, which makes your job as an ambassador of education more difficult.


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