Covid-19 laid waste to the summer plans for students and teachers in 2020, and if the Biden administration has its way, the virus could sink hopes for a return to normal this summer in the name of catching students up who have fallen behind academically, The New York Times reports.
President Joe Biden is expected to ask Congress to approve $29 billion to fund summer programs and tutoring. And if Congress passes his Covid relief package, schools in the US will have money to pay teachers to extend their 10-month contracts and take on students during the summer, extending the school year.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
First, teachers after 11 months of epic disruptions from the pandemic are exhausted, with many of them showing signs of burnout as they manage in-person and virtual students during each day and see on their screens a reduction of motivation on the part of many students.
Second, although there is some positive correlation between instruction time and academic achievement, the correlation is not exact and depends on other factors, such as classroom environment, quality of instruction, and student ability.
Adding more hours to the school day or increasing the number of days of schooling in the year is not necessarily going to increase achievement to meet expected grade-level performance on a standardized test. And it won’t work the same for every kid, especially those who are already behind or lack motivation to be a part of social learning in a vibrant classroom.
Furthermore, and third, the standardized tests that are now showing this “falling behind” phenomenon, which are measuring students during the pandemic in exactly the same way they measured students in 2019, in the face of massive differences in their classroom environment this school year, do not account for changes in motivation among students.
The validity if these tests is therefore suspect, and their reliability is basically out the window, especially if we consider the “test-retest” reliability. If the tests measure student achievement—a big “if” to begin with—they were validated under a set of classroom (and testing) conditions that are so different from those of today that reliability may not be possible.
But this is not a case against standardized testing; it’s simply a footnote that we may be looking at bad data.
Finally, and fourth, most of what learning, and hence academic achievement, looks like is in the motivation and rewards of students and teachers. If a student is motivated to learn something, and a teacher gives them appropriate rewards, students learn more, assuming that all other factors are equal.
In that sense, the last thing we should do is anything that makes students less motivated to learn or teachers less motivated to teach. And younger students, for whom literacy skill development is critical, are the ones subject to the greatest let-down from another lost summer.
Many teachers and the families of students enjoy summers off, as they get to spend more time with family and friends. Covid may have something to say about spending time with family and friends right now, but the situation could be different by the summer.
In the interest of trying to make sure high school students can, for example, plot a third-order polynomial instead of just a second-order polynomial in algebra 2, we risk bursting their motivational bubble. On the other hand, many students don’t like being out of school one bit, and their motivation levels may actually increase if they can head back to school this summer for a “second second semester.”
The effects may balance out, with kids who were motivated to begin with gaining ground academically and kids who were less motivated not gaining much at all. But the risk to their motivation is greater, since motivation is fundamental to learning.
Whatever the effect, which in many ways depends on the kid and the teacher, summer school would keep kids from experiencing a summer of 2021 that is more normal than the summer of 2020.
Kids enjoy their summers, as shown by an article in The Churchill Observer, the student newspaper at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland.
“Every year I have gone to St John for a week with my extended family,” student reporter Rachel Mattison quotes a sophomore student as saying. “We make a lot of memories and it is always my favorite weeks of the year. Both of my parents are doctors and are being extra cautious so I don’t think that they will deem it safe enough to go, although we did purchase refundable plane tickets. It is a weird time to plan a vacation, because I am excited to have something to look forward to, but we also are buying only refundable things and I am keeping expectations of going low.”
This student might be in for some disappointment again, not a good way to build motivation.
Other students in Ms Mattison’s article look forward to making money for themselves and their families during the break.
“I had planned to work at an outdoor adventure day camp last summer but it closed and therefore I obviously couldn’t,” another sophomore was quoted as saying. “Instead I hung out with friends and went biking a lot. This summer my hope is to work at a bike shop, but it is not confirmed yet because, since it is not a big space, they do not know how many people they are going to be comfortable employing. It is a weird time to be finding a job because the reasons many aren’t getting them are out of anyone’s control.”