Summer. Learning. Loss. Leadership.

Karen Pittman with Deborah Moroney, David Osher, Hal Smith, and Merita Irby
Blog by the Readiness Projects Coordinating Partners


In March, when the metric for school closings was the number of days, the Readiness Projects posted a blog recognizing the responsiveness of families and nonprofit organizations to the sudden reality that “out-of-school time is all the time.”  Since then, we have spent countless hours in virtual meetings with national, state, and local education and non-profit leaders listening as they shift their sights from days, to weeks, to months, to years. Relatively few of those hours, unfortunately, have been in meetings where both K-12 and non-profit leaders were reacting and re-envisioning together. This type of parallel scenario planning is predictable. This was the norm before COVID-19. The opportunity to not just build back better, but build back broader, however, makes this type of siloed planning not just regrettable, but irresponsible, especially when there are concrete examples of collaboration.

Our current system is limiting youth potential. There are four new COVID-19 induced realities that every organization and every adult is dealing with:  1) the inadequacy of current applications of and uses of virtual platforms, even when available, for virtual-only academic instruction, 2) the heightened visibility and exacerbation of many different kinds of inequities such as health, emotional wellness, family resources, food and housing insecurity (within and across families, schools, communities), 3)  the certainty of traumatic effects (associated with the virus, compounded by the closings, the separations and losses, the disconnection from important communities in young people’s lives), and 4) the uncertainty of re-openings (schools, child and youth development programs, workplaces, and the economy).

Transformational opportunities are never planned. We must be ready now to re-imagine how to ensure equitable, integrated opportunities for learning and development in the places where it happens in schools and communities. Shared disruptions can propel us create new “super-powers” to challenge assumptions, dismantle traditions, and accelerate change. Some of the most deeply held assumptions and traditions are related to four top-of-mind topics: summer, learning, loss, and leadership.

  1. Summer. It’s chaos. School districts, youth and community organizations, recreation departments, libraries, and mayors’ summer youth employment programs are all making independent decisions about whether, when, and how to operate this summer. Responses vary widely. But in general, districts seem to be leaning towards limiting summer offerings so that they can prepare for the fall. Libraries, recreation programs and facilities, and summer youth employment programs seem likely, without focused advocacy, to be deemed non-essential and reduced if not curtailed. Youth development and community-based programs that often gear up for summer seem to be working hard to honor their commitments while dealing with staffing shortages, revenue drops, and the challenge of shifting to virtual programming. As the economy reboots, many families will be forced to make uncomfortable and perhaps unsafe choices for their children as they return to work. If these decisions aren’t being centrally coordinated, it’s unlikely that they will be centrally communicated. Even more important, the cumulative impact of these decisions on summer learning will be critically underestimated. Summer youth employment programs, in particular, are vulnerable to overall employment uncertainty and public budget cuts. These programs, however, have been shown to have significant returns on investment for teens and communities.
  2. Learning. Now we all know: Learning does not just happen in schools. Summer has traditionally signaled a break from academic learning and assessment, but it doesn’t mean that learning doesn’t happen. Learning is more than academic competencies. Learning for life is a progression from simple to increasingly complex adaptive skills. Motivation, meaning making, and identity development are key to learning, especially for adolescents. Community organizations and nonprofit partners play important direct and complementary roles across all dimensions of learning. In particular, because participation is usually voluntary and interest-driven, adults in these settings create relational experiences that activate motivation, skill development, and identity formation and provide real-life opportunities to plan, fail, and contribute that build confidence and agency. Families became the primary hubs for all-day learning this spring. This summer could be a time where school and community partners figure out ways to acknowledge and build on the learning and development that may have happened as students have stepped up to support their families, used time to explore their interests, found ways to conquer their fears, connected more deeply with their culture, or taken stock of opportunity gaps that are now more visible.
  3. Loss. First, let’s acknowledge that young people and adults have experienced a huge array of unexpected losses, including academic progress. We shouldn’t trivialize the loss of relationships with peers, or the loss of routines and rites-of-passage rituals like proms and graduations. And we should take the time to ask about family losses – losses of housing, jobs, and lives. Some of these losses were experienced and perhaps even processed with peers, family members, or more broadly by people with whom they share racial, cultural, geographic, or economic identities. Others are deeply private. Every young person and adult will come into the fall months with highly differentiated experiences.Schools, families, and students are justifiably concerned about academic learning losses. To address academic loss—which is vitally important—we must create the conditions and relationships that reward what students did learn and gain academically and developmentally over this period AND reveal the impact of any adversity they have faced so that we can build from their strengths and buffer against future trauma. Taking the time up front to do this is critical for two reasons. Experiences—good or bad—have a cumulative and recurring effect on learning and development. Trauma can occur as students return to school: Some young people may have become closer to their families and have a hard time re-socializing. Some young people may have flourished in more flexible, supportive learning settings and have a hard time re-adjusting to a school environment they found stressful or even hostile.
  1. Leadership. In March, we offered a challenge to district, municipal, and community leaders to use summer to imagine what a true partnership between schools, families, and local child and youth-serving, civic, cultural, and educational organizations might look like. Strategic partnerships between school and community partners will not emerge full-blown because of COVID-19. But local and state leaders can certainly deepen partnerships where already present in some form. Pragmatic assessments of what is possible, even as summer scenarios are changing, can increase the changes that young people have access to experiences that strengthen relationships, connections, and complex skill development, and equally importantly reinforce messages that adversity can seed growth.

What We Must Do Now

There is one thing each of us can do immediately to honor all of the work students, parents, educators, policy makers, funders, advocates, and involved community members are doing to affirm our collective commitment to education.  Be careful with our language, starting with the term “learning loss.”  It will likely turn out that many students, especially low-income students, will have lost ground in core academic subjects.

There are numerous reasons why associating these slips in factual knowledge with the term learning loss is problematic:  Learning doesn’t just happen in schools. Schools are not just about academic learning. Schools are comprised of many different adults who do more than support subject matter mastery in settings that are not limited to classrooms. When schools closed, young people also lost access to these adults and settings.

The most important reason to not over-use this term, however, is that by the time fall comes around, young people, with adult support, will have taken incredible steps to forge different relationships, make meaning in new situations, make progress towards new goals, and make a difference to themselves, their families, their peers, and their communities.

We want to amplify the thinking of Rachael Gabriel, an associate professor of literacy education at the University of Connecticut, that was cited in The Washington Post on May 19th:

“If we use words such as “slide,” “loss,” “waste,” “pause,” “gap” and “cliff” to describe their learning, literacy and achievement, what will they conclude about their own intelligence, potential and ability to learn independently?  … If we use words such as “welcome” and “wonder,” and if we acknowledge and appreciate the learning they must have done, how will they orient to new learning challenges?”

Let’s build back better and broader together. It’s the only way to ensure that we don’t exacerbate inequities that existed before COVID-19.

Authors include Karen Pittman and Merita Irby of the Forum for Youth Investment, Hal Smith of the National Urban League, and David Osher and Deborah Moroney of the American Institutes for Research.