Things are a lot slower in the summer—for our students, for our educators, and even for… equity advocates. State legislatures and Congress are often winding down or on recess. It can be easy to look at these months as a time to recharge or plan how to approach the school year. Ironically, though, many of the gaps we work to close during the school year actually begin and are worsened during the summer months. As educators, parents, and disability advocates, summer shouldn’t become a break in our advocacy or in the work we do to improve student learning. Instead, it should be a time that our focus and work are accelerated.
The Broad Challenge. The facts can’t be ignored. Low-income students lose two to three months of reading gains during the summer, and most students lose two months of math skills, according to the National Summer Learning Association. These academic losses don’t capture the full range of challenges posed by summer learning loss. Students also have to make up for lapses in the behavioral and emotional routines and strategies that allow them to succeed academically, socially, and emotionally. While all students experience these challenges, they can be particularly pronounced for students with learning and attention issues, whose disabilities directly affect their capacity to receive, process, retrieve, and communicate their learning. That makes the summer gap particularly high stakes for this group.
Let’s Stop Filling Pails. It’s important to provide summer learning opportunities for students with disabilities. But it’s also essential to make sure these opportunities accelerate their learning throughout the year. To borrow from William Butler Yeats, education often feels like filling a pail rather than lighting a fire for learners with disabilities. Summer learning programs can end up being a way to keep filling the bucket, making sure students receive the knowledge we’ve failed to convey during the school year. Too often, this means doubling down on the exact same learning strategies that already failed these young people throughout the year, doing more of the same rather than approaching learning differently. For our students who struggle with school, summer school can feel like a punishment rather than like enrichment—an experience that makes them more disenchanted with learning, rather than one that lights a fire and truly helps them get ahead and improve their learning.
Students with disabilities participating in summer learning programs can face the same problems they already experienced during the regular school year: Modified, separate learning opportunities instead of accommodations that would allow them to be exposed to the same best practices that their peers are enjoying. In summer learning, those best practices include full day programs that focus on enrichment and the development of transferable 21st century skills through project-based and service-learning, and that provide students a range of comprehensive services. Providing these kinds of experiences to students with disabilities would ensure that their full range of learning differences were addressed and that they felt greater engagement and investment in the summer months.
The Challenges We Must Overcome. There are a number of obstacles that local, state, and national policies ought to address. Students’ IEPs often don’t transfer to the summer months. Summer educators may lack the skills or training to work with their students with disabilities. And it’s a challenge to connect case managers and other service providers to meet students’ needs. Frustratingly, this is often due to funding issues. Students summer learning loss that results from lack of access to quality summer learning opportunities can actually increase the need for academic and other services when they return to school in the fall.
Challenges in serving students with disabilities often signal broader challenges that school systems and states experience: Services from different providers may be disjointed due to lack of effective coordination. Educators aren’t effectively trained to meet the unique needs of all students, including those with disabilities. And a broader deficit-based mindset limits our inclination to provide rigorous and engaging learning opportunities for all our students.
Our Opportunity. The better way to approach summer learning loss for our students with disabilities is no different during the summer than during the school year. We need to build on students’ strengths rather than narrowly focusing on their deficits, prepare our educators to meet the full range of learning needs of their students, ensure that learning opportunities are accessible to the range of learning needs our students present, and better integrate and coordinate services for all learners.
In other words, rather than taking time off, summer is the ideal time to strengthen our learning systems. This summer, let’s invest in efforts to speed up rather than slow down these important conversations and efforts.