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It Takes a Village: The Achievement Gap and Summer Learning

It Takes a Village: The Achievement Gap and Summer Learning

Can we take a minute to be real for a second here? The buzzword, the dreaded phrase, the focus of all schools in the United States is: the achievement gap; the difference in academic performance between groups of students. There are some learners who are motivated, some who aren’t, some who love to learn, some who use schools as shelters, and some who have unlimited access to technology. The reality is that there will most likely always be an achievement gap as long as inequity exits within our education system. Once we see that this is not a singualr issue, we can then begin to figure out how to best navigate it and strategize to lessen that gap.

With that being said, there is no reason for the achievement gap to widen throughout the summer months with the various resources that are available. In fact, we can begin to figure out how we can shrink the achievement gap during the summer months.

Before jumping into one possible solution, let’s take a minute to do some math. We’ll profile a typical 5th grader (who is going into 6th grade) who doesn’t qualify for the gifted and talented program and who doesn’t have any accommodations that need to be made via IEP or Section 504 Plan requirements. This 5th grader has approximately between 175–180 instructional days per school year. Then, he or she has about 12 weeks off in the summer. Let’s say that schools this year have from June 11–September 3 off for a summer break, so that’s about 60 possible instructional days. Now, this will vary every summer a few days here and there, but let’s take that 60 days and multiply it by 6 to represent how many years the student has left before finishing senior year of high school (assuming they will not attend summer school after their senior year ends).

That is 360 instructional days—almost a year of time where students aren’t learning in a traditional academic setting. That is an achievement gap in itself; it’s a huge disservice for students learning in a traditional setting in the United States. Of course, there are benefits to breaks—there is no question about that. The question is: How long does the break need to be, really?

Because we can’t solve for everything when it comes to breaks from learning, below are some ways we can all help bridge the achievement gap through the summer months when students are not in a traditional academic setting.

What Is Summer Learning?

First, what is summer learning, and to whom does it apply? The current way our educational system is formatted, we look at summer learning in two ways: intervention or enrichment. We target students who are in need of significant assistance and those who are gifted and talented, but we pay less attention to the majority of students who land in the middle.

Learners traditionally attended summer school because they were unsuccessful the previous year. In recent years, teachers have been giving their students identified as gifted and talented opportunities to enrich themselves during the summer, providing them with summer reading, additional assignments, and various content to work on during the break. Instead of focusing solely on the highest- versus the lowest-performing students in the learning community, we should provide a summer learning opportunity for all students to promote the bridging of the achievement gap.

Who Needs to Be Involved?

It takes a village to make a great summer learning opportunity. In addition to learners, the people who could be involved are teachers, parents/guardians, academic leaders, and community leaders. Students need a structured place to continue their learning; but it’s summer, and they’re choosing to attend your motivational, academic opportunity over playing video games. It should be at least a little fun, right?

  • Teachers can provide the foundation and curriculum behind what students could learn over the summer.

  • Parents/guardians can support their child’s choice to be involved in summer learning opportunities. They may need to provide transportation, pay fees, encourage their child to want to partake, motivate him or her when needed, and hold him or her accountable.

  • Academic leaders can provide the staffing, building and/or virtual program, and discipline needed to have a safe, functioning summer opportunity.

Community leaders are so very important. The ability to partner with other organizations within your community who are already offering summer academic opportunities will only help learners and the organization become stronger.

What Curriculum Should We Use?

The curriculum is the best part to figure out. During the school year, teachers are constantly following guidelines, standards, benchmarks, expectations, and various federal policies; however, a summer learning opportunity gives teachers a platform to be more creative with the content they want the student to complete. Here are some ideas to help you create a successful summer learning opportunity:

Create a “Wish List”

This would involve all the items you wish your students knew before starting your class. Apply those items to your summer learning opportunity, then you can save your class time for more rich conversations or accelerated content.

Community Ed Style

You could create a summer learning opportunity that mimics how community education centers organize their “classes.” For example, maybe on Mondays and Wednesdays you have a Tablet Basics class, or a Deep Dive into Box Plots one. As a teacher, you can choose topics that students traditionally struggle with during the school year and offer those topics to all students as a learning opportunity they can sign up for. The class can be an hour a week if you want; this is completely customizable for what you’d want your students to learn.

Off-Site Learning

You can work with community leaders and/or organizations to provide some off-site learning opportunities for your students. For example, what local historical pieces do you have in your town? Maybe you can create an assignment that is cross-curricular with English and social studies to help learners.

Create Learner Groups

Find the groups of students who will partake in the summer learning opportunity and create “learner groups” to help with your accountability piece. Not only will they hold each other accountable to complete everything being asked of them, but they will also have people they can travel around with if the option is given for students to do off-site learning.

Structure Is Your Friend

The more structured your summer program is, the better it will be for you in the end. If you can provide a syllabus or even a calendar of events and deadlines for students to use as a guide, you will probably have more success.

Hold “Office Hours”

If you’re offering a summer learning opportunity that is more rigorous and you know students will need more guidance, you can offer office hours if you’d like. You could set this up in a virtual way or have a physical place for students to meet you and ask questions.


So how do you ensure that your students completed the summer learning program? Well, that can come into play in a variety of ways. If they paired up with a community organization, there probably is some type of record of attendance you could check. You could have an ungraded assessment during the first day or two of the year and use it as a diagnostic to see where students are academically for your course. You could even have them create a final project in a visual format to show what they learned over the summer and have it presented in the class (this can be used as advertising for the next summer).

Whatever you decide to do, the less grading on the teacher’s part, the better. We all know that zero grading is the best, but will your students have the motivation to complete the work without an incentive? If you say the incentive is having the knowledge to be ahead of most people in the class, will that work for them? The last thing you want is to launch into an ethics debate about grading and opportunities given to students.

Finally, creating a summer learning opportunity is a lot of front-loading work for teachers before the school year is completed, but it is doable. Also, it will provide a great learning opportunity for all students you serve, which can then be used as a bridge to address your achievement gap.

It may take some time to get a good summer learning opportunity up and running smoothly, but once it is, your students, teachers, and school community will be very grateful for the opportunity provided for them. Interested in learning more? Check out our Summer Planning & Success Toolkit for free downloadables, blogs, and best practices for effective summer school programs. 

This post was originally published April 2018 and has been updated.