From Summer School to Back-to-School: Did Summer School Accelerate Learning?

  • Amanda Shelley

While the fallout of distance learning will take years to fully realize, early research suggests the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted academic growth and widened the learning gap. As a result, summer school became a hot topic for the summer of 2021.

However, it might not have been the ideal solution for all students. Not all students benefited from a one-size-fits-all solution for addressing potential learning loss during summer school.

In this post, Big Ideas Learning takes a look at the potential pitfalls of summer school and identifies tips for how to accelerate learning as teachers and students begin the new school year.

The Potential Pitfalls of Summer School

Summer school is not an accelerated learning strategy but rather more of a remediation effort. While this type of remediation can be vital for some students, there are two major issues with applying this strategy as a blanket approach.

1. Limited Success

In order to learn efficiently and effectively, students need to link new information to background knowledge. However, summer school programs often focus on isolated skills that lack context, a connection to the current curriculum, and insights into their applications.

Further, as Suzy Pepper Rollins states in Learning in the Fast Lane

“Remediation is based on the misconception that for students to learn new information, they must go back and master everything they missed… The students who have the largest gaps and are thus the most academically vulnerable are sent the furthest distance back.”

Rollins goes on to discuss how this tedious process and pace, mixed with the reverse movement and lack of relevance, can lead to decreased student motivation and confidence.

A study by Rand Corporation, an organization focused on policy ideas and analysis, found that, after two consecutive years of high-quality summer school (costing more than $1,300 per student each summer), students who attended didn’t do any better academically or by social-emotional measures than those who didn’t.

2. Poor Attendance

The U.S. Department of Education has stated that the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund has provided “nearly $122 billion to states and school districts and requires that states invest at least $1.2 billion on evidence-based summer enrichment programs.” While funding is available and summer school is offered to assist students impacted by the pandemic, summer school attendance is not guaranteed.

A significant number of students are enrolled in summer school every year, but a considerable proportion of students fail to attend. The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization specializing in solving socio-economic issues, noted that when the New York Board of Education ran a mandatory summer program for 35,000 students, a total of 14,000 students never showed up. 


Is Summer School Beneficial?

There is evidence that summer school can be beneficial to learning. However, in order to be successful, the National Center for Biotechnology maintains that summer school programs “must be targeted to the needs of participants, have programming linked to desired outcomes, be of sufficient duration, and promote strong attendance.” But again, summer school should not have been used as a blanket solution to COVID-19-related learning loss.


How to Accelerate Learning in the 2021-2022 School Year

Despite the results of students attending summer school in 2021, teachers need to be able to address learning loss while progressing through new grade-level content. Accelerating student learning requires that educators provide intentional, practical, just-in-time support to students.

A just-in-time approach focuses forward on the current grade-level content, rather than backward on the skills missing from the prior grade. It gives your students the chance to feel some learning momentum, as they continue to acquire new skills and understanding.”

- Achieve the Core 


Here are three tips for accelerating learning as teachers and students begin the new school year:


1. Identify Content

Teachers must identify essential grade-level learning to focus instruction on content that is most crucial.

“Essential learning is defined as critical skills, knowledge, and dispositions that each student must acquire as a result of each course, grade level, and unit of instruction.”

- Kanold et al. 2018; Schuhl et al. 2020

After teachers determine essential learning, they must identify prerequisite skills necessary for learning new content by unit of instruction.

“In order for students to be able to access grade-level content, they are going to need to have the foundational skills in place.”

- Sarah Britton/Jami Therrien Wells, Achieve the Core


2. Evaluate Needs

Teachers must determine students’ proficiency of prerequisite skills before each unit to prepare students for learning new content successfully.

“Teachers need to determine the gap between students’ current level of performance or understanding and the expected level of mastery.”

- Hattie, Fisher, Frey – Visible Learning for Mathematics ©2017 p.66

Using the “just-in-time” approach teachers identify what students already know so they can “capitalize on students’ strengths and build off that foundation.”


3. Teach Effectively

Teachers can use effective instructional strategies to teach prerequisite skills to prepare students for successful learning of current grade-level content.

NCTM explains that,

“Prerequisite skills or understandings that may have been missed as a result of COVID-19 could be strategically taught right before the connected unit of study … Teaching these skills as connected to grade-level or course-level content deepens students’ mathematical understanding.”

In order to do this effectively, McKinsey and Company state that teachers must “provide exposure to grade-level content, while scaffolding students with ‘just-in-time support’ so they students can access such content.”


Returning to the Classroom

The summer of 2021 is now behind us and we don't know for sure yet if summer school was beneficial. But as teachers and students return from summer break, the focus must remain on moving forward optimistically. Accelerated learning strategies during the school year can strategically address learning loss while remaining focused on new grade-level content.



Learn more about the educational programs Big Ideas Learning offers that are aligned with the funding guidelines of ESSER to help accelerate learning for all students.

ESSER Funding

Share on: