- The Washington Times - Monday, June 18, 2001

Summer school. For many children, those two words were among the most sobering combination of syllables right up there with homework on weekends and square dancing in gym class. Feared by some, dreaded by others, summer school was once something only attended by the unfortunate few and discussed in hushed tones by students. It was seen as an ignominious fate. A life sentence.
Students may still view summer school in much the same way, but this year more of them will meet this fate than ever before. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of students slated for summer classes are likely headed to a futile exercise of more of the same that initially landed them in summer school.
The probable summer enrollment numbers from around the country appear staggering. In Washington, D.C., school officials plan to enroll up to 30,000 students. Approximately 33,000 Chicago students will hit the books this summer. Nearly 330,000 New York City students may have to report for summer classes an increase of close to 9,000 students compared to last year.
The increase in summer enrollment stems from state standards and testing programs. As more students fail state tests, schools are compelled to sponsor remedial programs for low-performing students. Facing already crowded school years, school leaders view expanded and mandated summer school as a commonsensical solution. Yet, evidence to date shows mandatory summer school has been a remarkable flop.
A 1999 study of summer school in Montgomery County, Md., showed that students gained little benefit from the program. In Arkansas, the state legislature concluded, "The expansion of summer remedial instruction programs during the summer of 1995 and 1996 did not generally prove to be as educationally advantageous and as cost effective as anticipated."
A 1999 New Orleans summer program to help students pass a required state test produced an 80 percent-plus failure rate in both language arts and math. From the land of the hanging chad, Broward County spent $24 million on mandatory summer school that produced dismal results. In some cases, children performed worse after completing the program.
And the story goes on Boston, New York and other cities are finding summer school a costly and complicated intervention that fails to show results. Overall, it appears that on average, 50 percent of students, at most, show enough gains in one summer to proceed to the next grade.
How can this be, you ask? After sending her child to summer school, one Florida mother provided a strikingly acute answer summer school puts a "Band-Aid on a much bigger problem."
Harvard Universitys Gary Orfield defines that much bigger problem. He says summer school is "a very simple minded addition to a poorly designed system of ." The simple-minded nature of summer school is that most programs give students more of what they had during the school year and expect it to work.
Take New York, for example. While 77 percent of eighth graders and 54 percent of fourth graders failed state math exams, the district adopted a new math program minimizing algorithms, long division and other basic math equations. Instead, students work in groups "discovering" their own answers. So, after failing to discover their math answers in the first 180 days, 300,000 New York City students will spend their summer further trying to "discover" answers to basic math equations.
If summer school is anything, it is an indictment of school systems that seem unable to get the job done during the regular school year and then spend the summer giving thousands of students more of the same. Thus, parents ought to be asking themselves this question: Why am I giving my child over to a school that thinks a repeat of the first 180 days is the answer?
Instead of more of the same, lets apply mountains of education psychology and make summer programs positive learning environments that will produce better-achieving kids. One recent study offers a model with noteworthy potential.
The Milken Family Foundation ran a summer literacy program for low-achieving students during which participants were taught reading in the context of a summer day camp. In this environment of positive summer experiences, friends, and social and emotional growth, each student was tutored individually by a volunteer. The results were impressive.
Students in the program did not view reading instruction as punitive and made significant achievement gains compared to students who did not participate. Along the way, kids developed meaningful relationships with adults who made the children feel special.
In light of this, will schools continue to mandate summer school for large numbers of students when few children who attend leave qualified for promotion to the next grade? Tragically, yes. However, with alternatives available like teaching students in a different, positive, mentoring-type of environment, continuing to send thousands of kids to a "commonsensical" more-of-the-same program makes no sense at all.

Dick Carpenter is an education policy analyst in the Department of Legislative and Cultural Affairs at Focus on the Family, a Christian ministry based in Colorado Springs, Colo.


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