Students with disabilities, those learning English and students who live in rural communities learn at the same rate during the academic year – and often faster – than their peers who are not disadvantaged, but they lose much more ground over the summer, according to new research from the nonprofit education policy and assessment organization NWEA.
The finding bolsters calls by Education Secretary Miguel Cardona for state education officials and school leaders to offer intensive summer learning programs for students who have incurred the steepest academic losses due to chronic interruptions to learning during the pandemic.
“Historically underserved students can grow academically at the same pace or faster than their peers in the school year,” says Lindsay Dworkin, vice president of policy and advocacy at NWEA. “Prior to this research, it’s been unclear what the school year versus summer growth trajectories have been and where we are losing ground. This research puts a big spotlight on summer and the need to do better over the summer for these students.”
While education policymakers and school districts have a solid grasp of the setbacks experienced by students of color, less research exists on how learning interruptions have dwarfed the academic achievements of students with disabilities, those still learning English and students from rural communities.
The new research from NWEA uses data available on the learning loss that these groups of students experienced during summer breaks prior to the pandemic to extrapolate what pandemic-related learning loss might look like for them. Its researchers also analyzed the learning patterns of each student subgroup to better understand where and when they fall behind.
For example, in a study of K-8 students nationwide, rural students entered kindergarten with higher achievement levels in math and reading than their non-rural peers. But by the end of third grade, non-rural students consistently outperformed those from rural communities across the grades. The report found that rural students grow at slightly faster rates in math and reading than other students when school is in session – but they lose more ground almost every summer.
For students with disabilities, a study of K-4 students nationwide shows that they enter kindergarten behind their peers in reading and math but go on to make gains at similar or higher rates than their peers during some school years. The group’s biggest challenge is that they lose more ground every summer, which has contributed and compounded to widening disparities in achievement.
Another research study that focused on achievement and growth for English-learners in K-4 showed that they had lower test scores than their peers through their elementary school years but that they also made academic growth similar to or at greater levels. However, similarly to students with disabilities, students who are still learning English tend to lose more ground over the summer than their non-English learning peers.
Now, as a third year of pandemic schooling begins to wind down, school leaders empowered by hundreds of billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 aid, are ramping up plans to offer summer school and tutoring programs in an effort to recoup some of those learning losses.
“There are plenty of resources,” Dworkin says. “And to the extent that money can solve the problem – and there are no easy answers – there are a lot of federal recovery resources at the disposal of districts and states to move heaven and earth to make this possible.”
An early analysis of how school districts are spending the federal aid from the American Rescue Plan from FutureEd, an education policy organization housed in Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, shows that roughly 30% of the funding is going toward academic recovery. According to the analysis, schools have spent more than $1.7 billion in one-time funding for tutoring and coaching, a sum that is projected to grow to $3.6 billion by the time federal coronavirus relief aid to education expires in 2024.
But a whole host of difficulties stand in the way of getting such services to students – even among the most well-laid plans – including staffing shortages, teacher burnout, transportation challenges and the voluntary nature of the programs that make enrolling students difficult.
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In Newark, for example, where roughly 45% of the district’s 38,000 children have a first language other than English, including 10% of K-12 students who do not speak English well, according to federal data, and where 9% of students have a disability, the results from mid-year assessments are alarming.
Education officials expect just 6% of students in grades three through seven to reach proficiency on end-of-year state math tests based on those mid-year assessments, compared to 27% who met proficiency prior to the pandemic in 2019. Students are staring down a similar fate with reading, with 10% students in grades one through seven expected to reach proficiency.
Like many urban school districts with a growing population of English learners and students with disabilities, Newark has struggled to hire enough specialized teachers and is still contending with major disruptions, including as recently as January, when the district was forced to pivot to remote learning during the surge in the omicron variant. And according to district data, more than 35% of students were chronically absent in February – another pandemic-related setback with which many city school systems are contending.
With the $282 million Newark will receive in federal pandemic aid, education officials plan to expand summer school and tutoring programs and hire additional teaching specialists to work one-on-one with students, which Cardona has asked all school districts to prioritize. But as it stands, Newark is making after-school tutoring and summer school optional – relying on students to opt into them rather than incorporating them into the school year as a requirement for all students.
Some education policy experts say that while the intent is good – and to some extent districts can’t adopt such requirements due to staffing challenges or union contracts – the voluntary nature of the academic-enrichment programs means many students will miss out.
A recent analysis of its after-school programs by Chalkbeat found that the district only served 3,800 elementary school students per day, or about 16% of those children. And while some schools also offer tutoring during the day, the analysis concluded that it was unclear whether the offering qualified as the “high-dosage” tutoring that Cardona has called for and research shows is most effective – like programs that include multiple small-group sessions per week.
“This information demonstrates that our system is effective at educating our students during the school year, and it is a call to action for states and districts on how to target summer programming so that all students can excel in school and beyond,” Deborah Delisle, CEO of All4Ed and former education department official during the Obama administration, says of the NWEA report. “Our children deserve nothing less.”
But even programs specifically designed for students with disabilities or those still learning English are running into uptake problems.
In New York City, where former Mayor Bill de Blasio directed $200 million in July for every school to establish a special education recovery program that offers after-school and Saturday services, including intensive tutoring and speech and physical therapy sessions, many schools didn’t get those programs up and running until December and some lasted just 10 weeks. Staffing challenges and lack of bus transportation further crippled participation.
While city officials have said the programs are open to all of the city’s 192,000 students with disabilities, they also expect just 35% of them to participate.
What’s unclear – and concerning to school leaders based on early evidence from school systems like Newark and New York – is how impactful and long-lasting the programs those dollars are supporting will be.
A powerhouse of K-12 leaders and policy experts, led by Kevin Huffman, the former Tennessee commissioner of education, and Janice Jackson, the former chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools, announced earlier this week that they’re closing in on their goal to raise $100 million to address that very problem by scaling cost-effective yet impactful tutoring models they hope to embed in schools for the long haul.
“The evidence is clear,” Cardona said earlier this week. “High-impact tutoring works, and I’ve urged our nation’s schools to provide every student who is struggling with extended access to an effective tutor.”
“We must seize this moment to use federal relief funds to help students, including those most impacted by the pandemic, to close gaps in opportunity and achievement that grew even wider over the last two years,” he said.