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Philanthropy News Digest: What Innovation in Education Really Means – Doing What Works!

Posted September 6, 2013

When the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush in January 2002, there were an estimated 141 million cell phone subscribers in the United States. Today that number is 326 million and the majority of those are tablets or smartphones - devices that were still the stuff of science fiction back in 2002. Needless to say, technological innovation transformed the telecommunications industry in a few short years - and the world will never be the same.

Unfortunately, we've seen no such transformation in education since the enactment of a law meant to shake up our schools by shining a light on achievement gaps and requiring interventions in schools with poor outcomes. But while government leaders continue to trumpet innovation in education, and while many so-called experts continue to obsess over the newest ideas and technologies, we already have some of the tools and approaches we need to make huge leaps forward in the way we educate our children.

Case in point: summer learning.

Summer learning works, and the lack of it in places where it is most needed clearly compromises student achievement and school success. We have decades of research quantifying the reality of summer learning loss and a quickly growing body of evidence about the value of effective summer learning programs. Yet for millions of children, summer learning loss is an accepted fact of life.

The good news is that some districts and communities have discarded the outdated notion of "summer school." Faced with uncertain budgets and the ever-shifting priorities of the education reform movement, they are managing to find new ways to share responsibility, access additional philanthropic resources, and improve and expand their summer learning initiatives.

Still, districts and schools can only do so much with the resources available to them. As a result, a growing number of districts are finding ways to partner with nonprofits, universities, and philanthropic organizations to identify, access, and allocate funding to combat summer learning loss. That's a big reason why summer learning initiatives in Boston, Charlotte and New York City have been able to replace inadequate summer school programs with more robust summer learning experiences for thousands of students. By rethinking the economics of summer learning, districts are delivering a full-day academic and enrichment opportunity for more weeks and to more students who need additional time for learning than traditional summer school programs have done in the past.

By working collaboratively to deliver summer learning, districts, nonprofits, and foundations also are creating "laboratories" where they can test and refine school-year reforms and are working to identify, vet, and launch the latest instructional materials and assessments. This summer, for example, schools in San Jose and San Rafael, California, Salem, Massachusetts, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, rolled out Common Core-aligned curriculum and computer-adaptive assessments that give teachers a leg up on some of the new content and tools they'll be using this fall. Such partnerships enable school administrators to access the training, coaching, data management, and ongoing support they need to make summer learning as effective as possible.

Most importantly, districts, nonprofits, and foundations are demonstrating that summer learning increases student achievement. Data continues to roll in from independent evaluators, proving that robust programs make a huge difference.

There are great examples of forward-thinking districts and communities that are making summer learning a priority and committing to it as a central education reform strategy. You see it in Charlotte and Boston; you see it in several California districts, including Los Angeles and Oakland through the Summer Matters campaign; you see it in New York City's Summer Quest initiative, which embraces a new vision for summer learning; you see it in Winston-Salem), where local philanthropic support enabled the district to increase the number of students in its just-completed summer learning program by 50 percent.

The success of these and other summer learning initiatives shows that it can be done, that schools, districts, and communities can work together to pursue a proven strategy at scale. Isn't it about time such efforts became the norm rather than the exception? The initiatives mentioned above reached only a fraction of the students who need access to high-quality summer learning opportunities in those communities. After all, if we can't focus on and commit to something we already know works, as demonstrated by decades of compelling evidence, what expectations should we have about how long it'll take new ideas to deliver on their promise?

By Tiffany Cooper Gueye, Ph.D.
Chief Executive Officer, BELL