Summer School Isn’t a Solution

March 3, 2000

This summer, the New York City Board of Education intends to hold back one of three public school students—320,000 children—and send them to summer school. This initiative will be a disaster. Harold Levy, the interim chancellor, who inherited it, should change course before it is too late.

The Board of Education ran a similar program last summer for only 35,000 students. The program was mandatory, but 14,000 students didn’t bother to show up. What’s worse, the board didn’t even know they were missing until summer school was over. Moreover, more than 8,000 students were mistakenly assigned to summer school, including some who passed a reading test in June but failed it after five weeks of allegedly intensive instruction. (Passing didn’t mean much, anyway, because the passing mark was set at only the 15th percentile.) Given the school system’s inability to run a successful summer program for 35,000 children, how can it do a better job for nearly 10 times as many students?

Summer school is only a few months away, yet none of the 17,000 teachers needed has been hired. Given chronic teacher shortages and most teachers’ desire to have a summer vacation, the Board of Education will certainly be forced to hire any teacher who is willing to teach summer school.

These teachers may well be less qualified and even less well trained than those who teach from September to June. Under these circumstances, there is no reason to believe that students will magically learn more in a few summer weeks than they learned during the regular school year.

For summer school to be successful, it must offer children the real hope that they will not be left back. After all, the purpose of the summer program, in New York as well as in other cities, is to end social promotion, the practice of advancing children to higher grades when they have not mastered the work of their own grade.

Many educators defend social promotion because they believe that children will drop out if they are discouraged by being left back. But in the end, social promotion just pushes youngsters into high school even if they cannot read, and eventually causes them to drop out of school in frustration.

Social promotion should be ended, but it must be ended responsibly. The board should scale back its summer program so that it affects only students who failed the state’s tests in Grades 4 and 8. This would reduce the number of students who need remediation to about 70,000, which is a more manageable number than 320,000. Then the board might be able to select only highly skilled and demonstrably successful teachers for these students.

The first priority of the school system should be to make sure that students have good instruction from September to June. Students who are failing should receive intensive instruction during the school year, after school and on Saturdays if necessary. Teachers whose students regularly fall behind need more training, and they should get it promptly.

Ending social promotion is a good decision, but it is unconscionable to hold children back and send them to summer school unless the school system can offer them a proven curriculum and well-trained teachers. Indeed, another summer of disastrous results might just sour New York on ending social promotion—and that would be the real shame.