Insights Blog

Three Things the Pandemic Taught Us About Summer School

At a Glance

Cover less content, but make deeper connections
Focus on the concepts that students most need for the next year
De-stigmatize it and make it fun

More than two years into the pandemic and millions of more students are in need of additional academic support this summer, especially in math. During this challenging time, our nation’s educators – who we have the privilege of working closely with – and Zearn researchers learned a lot about how to achieve maximum impact in summer school and how to set kids on a path of learning recovery.  

Here are three innovative ways to help catch kids up and move them forward in a supportive learning environment during the summer:

1. Cover less content, but make deeper connections

The traditional approach to summer school is a remedial one — students take a diagnostic test that identifies which skills from the previous grade have not yet been mastered, and then receive instruction to fill in the gaps ahead of the next school year. We know now, however, that this Whac-A-Mole learning strategy doesn’t work. When students don’t progress coherently through the material, making connections between the big ideas in math, they end up more confused and fall further behind. It’s counterintuitive given how much learning students have missed over the last two years, but what we’ve come to learn is that the best way to spend the precious few weeks of summer school is to not try to cover everything. Instead, focus on just a few key concepts and deeply explore them. Some skills will come up again naturally during the next school year, and students will have the opportunity to learn them within the context of those lessons. 

2. Focus on the future

When deciding which gaps to address deeply, focus on the math concepts that students will most need to tackle next year’s math learning. This doesn’t necessarily mean concentrating on concepts relating to the first math unit of the next school year, but instead taking a wider lens to identify the content most fundamental to be able to understand next year’s grade-level learning. For this reason, Zearn’s summer school curriculum for rising fifth graders, for example, targets fraction equivalence, laying a strong foundation for the work they’ll do in fifth grade, adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing fractions.

3. Destigmatize summer school and make it fun

As countless movies make clear, summer school has a terrible reputation 

for being the boring place that students must go as a consequence — or worse, as punishment — for failing a course. We should be celebrating — not stigmatizing — students who pursue extra help, whether it’s necessary in order to progress to the next grade or an opportunity for additional enrichment. With so many students in need of additional learning support, now is the perfect time to create a culture that encourages students to seek help when they need it and sends the message that everyone can benefit from additional learning. 

And of course, an important part of making summer school a place where students want to be is doing away with outdated practices, like having kids sit in a near-silent room completing worksheets in isolation. We have much better teaching tools now that can target students’ individual needs and actually make learning fun. Particularly now, students need us to make this time fun and productive. Many children spent weeks or months over the last two years without the benefit of in-person learning with their teachers and peers, and we know that student engagement —and learning — dropped precipitously during distance learning. This summer, educators can take advantage of being in-person to create a camp-like environment, in which students can build relationships, participate in fun activities, and solve problems collaboratively.

While it’s true that four to six weeks of instruction can’t make up for everything students may have missed over the last two plus years, if we use this time well, we can set students up for success next school year and create better, more impactful summer school programs that students enjoy.

Written by Shalinee Sharma

Shalinee Sharma is the CEO and co-founder of Zearn Math.