From Aspiration to Confirmation: iPads in the Schools, Two Years Later

First, some data.

(1) According to data collected by 9th grade teachers at Northfield High School, failure rates in ninth grade, after several years of decline, jumped from about 5% to about 8% in the first year of the one-to-one (1:1) iPad program at the high school.

(2) Below is a graph from the Minnesota Department of Education that shows, based on various measures, the percentage of students at Northfield High School “on track for success.” Notice the sharp decline between 2013 and 2014, which corresponds to the first year of the 1:1 iPad program.


Now, a question: Does this data reflect the impact of the 1:1 iPad program? Are iPads responsible for a higher failure rate in 9th grade and fewer students “on track for success”?

There is currently no way to answer this question. The 1:1 iPad program currently includes no objective means of collecting and analyzing data on the impact of iPads on student achievement.

Instead, we have aspirational statements: statements of what we hope iPads will do for our students.

Aspirational Statement #1: “iPads will help students develop the 21st-century skills of communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking (the 4 C’s).”

It bothers me when communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking are referred to as “21st century skills,” as they so often are. They are skills that have always been needed to succeed. But if these skills are invoked to support the 1:1 iPad program, I need to know specifically the impact of iPads on the development of these skills.

I could ask, facetiously perhaps, how focusing on the screen of a personal handheld device enhances communication and collaboration. From talking to some teachers, students, and parents, I might conclude that this forced exposure to screen time in the schools has eroded interpersonal relationships and interfered with effective communication.

In any case, if “the 4 C’s” are invoked to argue for the educational efficacy of iPads, I need solid evidence—data—to support that claim.

Aspirational Statement #2: “Students need to develop the technological skills to succeed in the 21st-century workplace.”

Yes, the 21st-century workplace is full of technology. But I need to be convinced that iPads prepare students more effectively for the realities of that workplace than, for example, laptops or other devices. Even in the education market, iPads have begun to lose market share to Chromebooks. So why are we so heavily invested in iPads as the device of the future?

More importantly, I think students will be better prepared for the technological future if we help them develop flexibility and adaptablity than if we focus their technological education on a single device like an iPad.

I am not opposed either to technology or the development of so-called 21st-century skills. I’m opposed to making claims without any plan to back up those claims with research and assessment.

At the same time, I do have serious concerns about the impact of the 1:1 iPad program on lower achieving students, and about the possibility that iPads could actually be widening, rather than narrowing, the achievement gap. In my experience, higher achieving students have generally expressed satisfaction with their iPads. Lower achieving students often tell a different story.

I have spoken to a number of struggling students and their teachers, and most of them have told me that iPads make it harder to learn, adding new distractions, complications, and levels of stress. Some reported to me that their grades have slipped. We need to track that data, and figure out how to connect the dots between iPads and student achievement.

We need to ask ourselves if iPads are the most effective use of our resources if our goal is to enable all students to succeed.

In the past nine years, the TORCH Program has had demonstrable success in raising the academic achievement and enhancing the life prospects of at-risk students. The TORCH Program currently receives minimal funding from the district, and each year struggles to find the funds to continue its work. Meanwhile, half a million dollars a year is spent on iPads, without any effort to assess the impact of iPads on student achievement.

The current strategy seems to be to “problem solve” or troubleshoot, to help teachers and students overcome technical problems with the use of iPads. This addresses the “how” of using iPads, but not the “why.” It doesn’t address the question of whether iPads are making teachers more effective or students more successful.

Until we can move from aspiration to confirmation, I will continue to have serious reservations about the Northfield Public Schools’ investment in iPads.

Updates to the School Board on Transformational Technology

The latest update on the Transformational Technology program by the district’s Director of Technology (January 26, 2015), can be found here.

A presentation on the Transformational Technology program given in September 2014 can be found here.

Some Lessons of My First Year on the School Board

The Internet neither forgives nor forgets.

In December 2008,  the school board was deliberating over whether to approve the construction of an addition to Sibley Elementary School as recommended by the superintendent. In a comment on Griff Wigley’s LocallyGrown blog, I expressed my hesitation about the project, citing reports of declining populations and dire state budget forecasts. I was worried that we would go into debt and have empty classrooms.

In a follow-up to my comment, Kevin Dahle wrote: “Numbers for 2010-2020 from the Minnesota Office of Geographic and Demographic Analysis show an overall population increase in Rice County of nearly 14%, including a 28% increase for 5-9 year olds and a 21% increase for 10-14 year olds. A housing study from June 2007 for the city of Northfield (Randall Gross Associates) predicted a population increase of 2,100 residents over the next 5 years. I trust the school board, Superintendent, and the business manager to make the right decision in the context of economic and demographic projections.”

In fact, a state demographer’s report in June 2009 predicted a 7% increase in K-12 enrollments between 2008-2009 and 2018-2019. Between the approval of the Sibley project in 2008 and the completion of the project in 2010, enrollments in the district did decline by about 2%, but they have since rebounded. Elementary enrollments have remained remarkably steady. The most dramatic shift has been at Sibley, which had the smallest population in 2008-2009 (462 students) and which now has the largest population (581 students).

Not only was the Sibley addition needed to create more space in an already overcrowded school,  the district administration also had in place a responsible plan for funding the project.

Now, less than four years after the addition was completed, the board is faced with another difficult decision about creating space at Sibley for all-day kindergarten.

The superintendent’s recommendation to approve the design phase of the Sibley addition was approved by the board in special session on December 22, 2008. Incoming (and now current) school board members Ellen Iverson and Anne Maple spoke in favor of the recommendation during public comment, and board members Kari Nelson and Noel Stratmoen voted yes.

How could I have been so wrong in 2008?

For one thing, I had incorrect and incomplete information. In my comment on LocallyGrown, I didn’t link the demographic information I was relying on, but it was clearly wrong about enrollment projections for the next decade. I also didn’t have a clear understanding of the plan for financing the project. Unlike the members of the board who made the decision, I hadn’t toured Sibley and seen the pressing need for more space. I hadn’t even attended the public meetings about the project, and may not even have read the full recommendation by the superintendent. I was uninformed and irresponsible.

Five years later, at the end of my first year as a member of the school board, I find myself in a position of responsibility for decisions such as the one made by the board in December 2008. What am I doing differently now than I did five years ago?

Now, of course, I carefully read and study every bit of information provided to the board. Sometimes I convert the raw data into graphs to help me visualize and better understand the numbers. I ask follow-up questions at board meetings and by email, and meet with the superintendent and director of administration. I visit the schools. I gather information from other sources, including published studies, and talk to parents and teachers and students and other members of the community.

Although I want to research an issue thoroughly and come to my own conclusions, I have a comfortable level of trust in the district administration. The superintendent and his cabinet, with the support of the board over the past decade, have been careful stewards of district resources, and have done a good job of navigating the vicissitudes of state education funding and state and federal accountability mandates. The school district is a complex organization, and no one understands it or can manage it better than the current administration.

In my first year on the board, I’ve only once voted against the superintendent’s recommendation, when I voted against the iPad proposal. I believe I adequately expressed my reservations about the proposal at the time, and won’t revisit them now. The board approved the proposal, and as a member of the board it’s my responsibility to take ownership of it. I’ll continue to ask hard questions, but I hope that in another five years, the program is so successful that I can again say that I was wrong.

I’m still studying the proposal to move four special education students from Sibley to Greenvale Park in order to make room at Sibley for another kindergarten classroom. I do think the administration has studied the issue thoroughly and responsibly, but I still need to make up my own mind. There are still things about it that don’t sit right with me.

In the Northfield News, the superintendent said that moving special education students was “a strategy we’ve used before.” Another administrator wrote in a memo: “The recommendation to move the DCD-Moderate program is not something new, different, or unique.” This may be the case, and the unfortunate and unavoidable reality of the situation, but I think the parents of at least one of the affected children are looking for a solution that is new, different, and unique. I don’t like having to tell parents, who naturally think of their child as unique and deserving of special consideration, that we’re going to fall back on the tried and true “strategy” of moving special needs students.

I keep struggling to find a different solution, not so much because I think the superintendent’s recommendation is wrong, as because I think the situation is wrong. A child should not have to be moved, against his parents’ will, from a situation in which he is happy and thriving. I think of my oldest son, a 22-year old whose best friends are still the friends he made at Greenvale Park Elementary. I would not have wanted him to be moved to a different elementary school for any reason.  I don’t think the decision to move any child is inconsequential, and I can’t make that decision without feeling for myself some of the pain that it causes.

The book currently on my beside table is Deborah Meier’s In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization (2002), which was recommended to me by Simon Tyler, the director of Prairie Creek Community School. In the book, Meier compares the relationship of parents and schools to the relationship between a “difficult patient” and her doctor. She talks about shopping around for a doctor to treat her ovarian cancer, getting opinions from five different physicians. She was able to exercise a certain amount of choice and independent judgment, but this only went so far.

I was able to choose between doctors, but no doctor thought that once I had chosen him or her that I should be calling the shots. Some barely thought I should be consulted. At some point I had to relax and trust the judgment of the physician I had selected. Of course, recognizing this fact doesn’t turn me into an easy patient, a fact that makes me sympathetic to difficult parents.

I probably won’t ever be an easy patient on the school board. I’ll continue to ask questions and to demand second opinions. But in the end, I do generally trust the diagnosis of the district administration, even if their beside manner occasionally rankles.

Pros and Cons: Portable Classrooms

Option B offered to the school board on Monday night was to lease two portable classrooms at Sibley to house math and reading support programs, ESL programs, and RtI programs.

When I toured Sibley Elementary a few weeks ago, it was immediately apparent to me that space was at a premium—not just for all-day kindergarten, but for other programs currently offered at the school. The ESL program, which has to accommodate eight students at a time, is in a small, windowless room that was converted from a locker room when the building was remodeled in 2009. Reading and math support specialists were likewise crammed into makeshift spaces. Furniture and supplies for the afterschool program were stored in the corner of a hallway.

A portable classroom or two would provide more space for the special programs listed above, while freeing up a classroom for kindergarten and allowing the DCD-Moderate special education program to remain at Sibley.

Portable classrooms are a time-honored solution to space needs. At Monday’s meeting, board member John Fossum remembered portables at Sibley when he was a student there in the 1970s. For many years, Carleton College housed its language lab in a portable classroom. Owatonna is currently considering the use of portables to make space for all-day kindergarten, and thousands of portables are in use in school districts across the country. While traditional portables look like construction trailers, more innovative designs (including energy-efficient “green” designs) are becoming available.

On the downside:

  • Traditional portables are prone to mold problems and HVAC issues.
  • Portables are expensive to set up (e.g., site preparation, HVAC, etc.) and require a substantial annual lease.
  • Making use of portables for pull-out services (like RtI, ESL, and math and reading tutoring) would result in numerous, often disruptive transitions in and out of the main building in all weather.
  • It would be difficult to secure portable classrooms. In the wake of Sandy Hook, the district (like districts across the country) has been investing in security upgrades, and when Sibley was remodeled in 2009, the entry was redesigned for secure access. An outlying portable classroom would represent a large hole in this security, bringing 150 to 200 children outside of the secure main building for services throughout the day.* Many school districts (here’s a story about a district in Tennessee) are securing their campuses with security fencing, which is one way of controlling access to a portable. I would not want to put prison fencing up around one of our elementary schools. Security measures would also add to the cost of the portable classrooms.

I suggested that a portable classroom be set up as a computer lab, in order to move a computer lab out of the main building and free up that space for kindergarten or special education. I expect that wiring a portable for computers would be expensive, and the security issues would still remain.

Again, if you have any questions, insights, or suggestions, please let me know.

*Note: One question I don’t have an answer to at the moment is how going out of the building to a portable classroom is more of a security risk than going outside to the playground at recess.

Making Room for All-Day Kindergarten

In the spring of 2013, the Minnesota State Legislature authorized funding to allow all school districts in the state to offer tuition-free all-day kindergarten beginning in the fall of 2014. As a result, most school districts across the state are scrambling to find space in already crowded elementary schools for all-day kindergarten. Where before a single classroom could accommodate 20 kindergartners in the morning and a different group of 20 kindergartners in the afternoon, now the same school buildings will have to be able to accommodate all 40 of those children at the same time. In Northfield, this means having the capacity for 4 kindergarten classrooms in each elementary building.

Currently, there is room for 4 kindergarten classrooms at Bridgewater and at Greenvale, with even more space available at Greenvale. There is no extra room at Sibley. In order to make room at Sibley and make use of the additional space available at Greenvale, the administration is recommending that four students in the DCD-Moderate special education program, currently being housed at Sibley, be moved to Greenvale Park in the fall of 2014. (DCD stands for Developmental Cognitive Disability.)

At the school board work session on November 21, this was the only option presented to the board by the administration. At the December 9 school board meeting, five other options were presented, with the understanding that these were not being recommended to the board. Erin O’Neill lays out the other options in her story in the Northfield Newsand I’ve made this grid comparing the pros and cons of each option (with the additional option of converting a computer lab at Sibley into a classroom):

Space Options

Click to view larger image.

The recommended option would have an impact on the smallest number of students, but this is not to minimize the impact it will have on the four students who would have to move from Sibley to Greenvale. I find it especially unfortunate that, even as the district is integrating wireless devices into classrooms in a move that will eventually make computer labs obsolete as instructional tools, we have to preserve a room for computer hardware at Sibley, while sending four special needs  students elsewhere. Unfortunately, the state requires mandatory state testing to be done on computers, which means that the computer labs are booked solid during the weeks of testing. And the state department of education does not currently allow testing to be done on the wireless devices that the district now has in such quantities.

If you have any questions or suggestions, please leave a comment or contact me at the email address on this page.

School Board Work Session Debriefing: Visualizing the Data

On Thursday, November 21, the Northfield School Board met in a work session to begin the process of addressing short- and long-term demographic issues and facilities needs within the district. The Board was presented with a packet of data on student achievement and enrollments in the district, and with a recommendation for addressing the need for additional kindergarten classroom space brought about by the introduction of universal free all-day kindergarten in the fall of 2014.

In this post, I want to look at some of the data presented at that work session. I have taken some of the raw numbers and presented them in color-coded graphs, which I hope will aid in visualizing the data. I won’t at this time offer any thoughts about possible next steps, or address the short-term issue of making space for all-day kindergarten. Those will be topics for future posts.

Note that each graph or table below can be clicked to enlarge. The original data packed presented to the Board at the November 21 meeting can be found here.

Shifting Enrollments

One of the salient facts that emerged from the data is that over the past decade there has been a significant shift in enrollment in the elementary schools. In 2005-2006, Bridgewater had the largest enrollment (613 students) and Sibley had the smallest enrollment (433 students). In 2013-2014, Sibley has the largest enrollment (26 more students than Bridgewater).


Fig. 1: Enrollment at Bridgewater, Greenvale Park, and Sibley as a percentage of the total elementary school enrollment, 2005-2006 and 2013-2014

This graph (fig. 1) shows the change in enrollments in the three elementary schools, as a percentage of the total elementary enrollment in the district, in 2005-2006 and in 2013-2014. The percentages are listed in the table (fig. 2). The total elementary enrollment in 2005-2006 was 1583 students; in 2013-2014, the total elementary enrollment is 1612 students.


Fig. 2

Without taking into consideration the racial and socioeconomic profile of each school, the enrollments would appear more balanced in 2013-2014 than in 2005-2006. In the earlier year, there was an 11.37% difference between the highest and lowest enrollment schools. In 2013-2014, there is only a 6.7% difference.

What accounts for these changes? For one thing, the community as a whole has grown. At the time of the 2000 census, the population of Northfield was 17,000. In 2010, it was 20,000. It would be interesting to know what the population growth has been in each of the three elementary attendance areas in the past decade. It is clear, however, that during this time, the Hispanic/Latino population in Northfield has increased from 5.7% of the total population in 2000 to 8.4% in 2010, and that much of this population is located in the Greenvale Park attendance area.

Between 2000 and 2013, the LINK choice program at Greenvale Park was discontinued; kindergarten classes were shifted from Longfellow Elementary to the neighborhood schools; and the Compañeros Program was shifted from being offered exclusively at Bridgewater, to being offered at both Bridgewater and Greenvale Park, to being offered in all three elementary schools. Meanwhile, Prairie Creek Community School moved from being a private, tuition-based school to a free public charter school in 2002, and  expanded its capacity with a new addition in 2009.

All of these factors are sure to have contributed to the shifting enrollments in the three elementary schools.

The Impact on Greenvale Park Elementary

The effects on Greenvale Park Elementary have been the most dramatic. English language learners (ELL) account for 22.9% of the population at Greenvale Park, and 42.2% of Greenvale Park students qualify for Free or Reduced Price Lunch. Greenvale Park has far more Latino students with limited English proficiency and a far higher rate of poverty than the rest of the district.

At the same time, Prairie Creek’s conversion from a private to a public school has had a disproportionate impact on Greenvale Park, as can be seen from the graphs below.  Figure 3 shows the loss to the three elementary schools through open enrollment and intradistrict transfer (transfer from one elementary school to another within the district), and figure 4 shows the total loss to the district through open enrollment from the elementary schools.

46% of the loss to the district through open enrollment is from Greenvale Park, and 40% of the loss from Greenvale Park is to Prairie Creek. Intradistrict transfer only accounts for the loss of 12 students from Greenvale Park, while 82 students are lost to Prairie Creek from Greenvale Park. (Note that in the two graphs below, Greenvale Park is in blue, Sibley is red, and Bridgewater is green.)


Fig. 3: Loss to the three elementary schools through open enrollment and intradistrict transfers


Fig. 4: Total loss to the district from open enrollment out of the three elementary schools.

Three High Quality Elementary Schools

It is clear, however, that students who are white and do not fall into one of various subgroups (ELL, Special Education, Free and Reduced Price Lunch) attain the same levels of academic achievement at all three elementary schools. In fact, white, non-subgroup students at Greenvale Park slightly outperformed those students at Sibley on the 2013 MCA reading test (fig. 5). All three elementary schools are near or above the district average and well above the state average.


Fig. 5: Comparison of 2013 MCA Math and Reading proficiency from each of the three elementary schools, the district as a whole, and the state as a whole.

One question facing the Board is whether something should be done to balance the levels of ELL students and of poverty across the elementary schools, so that Greenvale Park doesn’t continue to have the highest concentration of students in these categories. Can the elementary schools become more integrated, and is greater integration something the district should pursue? How  will the district respond to continued population growth and demographic changes?

These are some of the data and some of the questions the Board began to dig into on November 21. The implications of this data for the future direction of the district will be the focus of ongoing discussions.

Book Review: “The Smartest Kids in the World”

Amanda Ripley. The Smartest Kids in the World.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013. 306 pp. (199 pp. main text). Hardcover. $28.

On December 3, the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) will release the results of the 2012 PISA test, which ranks countries based on the performance of 15-year olds around the world on assessment of reading, mathematics, and science skills.  When the test was last administered in 2009, U.S. students ranked 17th overall, and a below-average 25th in math. At the top of the list were Shanghai, Korea, and Finland.

The following school year, 2010-2011, journalist Amanda Ripley, a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, set out to discover how Korea and Finland had become educational powerhouses while the United States, despite a decade of educational reform under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, still languished in the middle of the pack. To tell her story, she enlisted three American exchange students bound for Finland, Korea, and Poland, and used their experiences to contrast the educational systems in their host countries and back home in the United States. The story was different in each country, but Ripley came to the conclusion that what each of the educational powerhouses shared was a commitment to academic rigor.

The educational powerhouses have rigorous teacher training programs. All students in these elite countries are required to pass a challenging exam to graduate from secondary school. Students are characterized by an intense drive to succeed. Both teachers and students take learning seriously.

In Finland, where her informant Kim spends a year as an AFS exchange student, Ripley finds much higher standards for teacher training than in the United States, much greater respect for teaching as a profession, and higher compensation for the teachers themselves. In contrast, she offers the example of Kim’s math teacher back home in Oklahoma, who didn’t major in math in college and became a teacher so that he could coach high school football. Ripley concludes that in the United States, the obsession with sports, classroom technology, and the cultivation of self-esteem distract from what should be the core focus on educating students to a high academic standard.

Ripley returns to the subject of high school sports in a recent piece in The Atlantic, “The Case Against High School Sports.” In that article, she focuses on a school district in Texas that was able to boost its academic performance after it eliminated its athletic programs. In a reponse to Ripley’s article, David Cutler takes her to task for “expecting readers to go along with sweeping generalizations based on a single case study.” In The Smartest Kids in the World, the focus on the experience of her three exchange students—Kim from Oklahoma in Finland, Eric from Minnesota in Korea, and Tom from Pennsylvania in Poland—gives the book that same feeling of presenting generalizations based on limited case studies.

For example, she talks about “the stoner kid” that Kim encounters in her Finnish school. She reports Kim’s surprise that “stoners” even existed in Finland, and that, unlike “stoners” back home in Oklahoma, this Finnish “stoner” was “a model student.” The lesson that Ripley draws from this is that all students in Finland, even the stoners, were more serious about education than American students.  But basing her conclusion on the stereotypical responses of a sixteen-year old exchange student doesn’t exactly make for a convincing argument. She excels at anecdote, but falls short when it comes to analysis.

Ripley has been roundly criticized for relying exclusively on data from the PISA, which doesn’t account for the relative levels of poverty in the countries whose students are being tested. According to a report of a study of PISA scores conducted at Stanford University: “Based on their analysis, the co-authors found that average U.S. scores in reading and math on the PISA are low partly because a disproportionately greater share of U.S. students comes from disadvantaged social class groups, whose performance is relatively low in every country.” If the effects of socioeconomic inequality were factored into the data, the United States would join the ranks of educational powerhouses. The Stanford study, co-authored by Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein, also indicated that the achievement gap is smaller in the United States than in “similar post-industrial countries,” and that the achievement of socioeconomically disadvantaged students has been rising significantly over time, while it has been falling in countries like Finland and Korea.

According to another analysis of 2009 PISA data, when schools in America with a lower than 10% poverty rate were compared to schools in Finland, the U.S. outranked Finland by 15 percentage points. The problem is that, while the overall rate of child poverty is about 3.5% in Finland and about 10% in South Korea, it’s about 23% in the United States. If we want to be in the same league as Finland and South Korea, we need to reduce poverty. That’s the most significant step we can take in school reform.

Child poverty rates in OECD countries. From the Washington Post.

But Ripley largely ignores the issue of poverty, except to say that Poland, with a poverty rate comparable to that of the United States, achieves comparable educational results.

Perhaps one of the reasons that Korea (which doesn’t report its poverty data) outranks the United States is that most of the learning takes place in after-hours for-profit tutoring and test preparation centers called “hagwons.” Such centers, with their high fees, would be out of reach for less affluent students. In South Korea, the culture seems to promote intense, even suicidal stress among students prepping for the high-stakes graduation and college entrance exam—but even Ripley admits that many Korean students burn out once they get to college. The system doesn’t appear to foster a life-long love of learning.

Ripley is an engaging writer who easily carries the reader along with her anecdotes and her unfeigned passion for education, and there’s a lot that she gets right. Yes, it’s important for parents to read to their children. Yes, a good teacher is more important than an interactive whiteboard.

But Ripley, with her love of the simple, defining anecdote, too often seems to fall for a version of the “great man theory,” believing that all it takes is a visionary leader—Andreas Schliecher, who devised the PISA; reformist Polish education minister Miroslaw Handke; reformist Rhode Island education commissioner Deborah Gist; Success Academy charter schools CEO Eva Moskowitz—to push education in the right direction. But I’m more persuaded by the model outlined by David Kirp in Improbable Scholars [see my reviewhere], who argues that it’s not the headline-grabbing reformer, like Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein, but the steady effort of a team of dedicated educators working together that yields the best results.

Work Session: Summer Learning Loss and the Achievement Gap

Although the weather has temporarily turned unseasonably cool, we’re deep in the heart of summer vacation. A heat wave in the middle of July brought record numbers to the community pool. Many school-age children are going to camp, participating in summer sports and recreation activities, and traveling with their families. But not all children are enjoying or benefiting from a summer off from school. At least, that’s the contention of Matthew Yglesias, writing in Slate, who argues that “summer vacation is a disaster for poor children and their parents, creating massive avoidable inequities in life outcomes and seriously undereducating the population.” The reason is that summer learning loss, or “summer slide,” disproportionately affects poor children whose parents can’t afford summer enrichment activities like summer camp.

Is summer learning loss a problem in Northfield? The data would suggest that it is.

After the regular School Board meeting on July 8th, the School Board reconvened for a work session on the achievement gap and summer learning loss (“summer slide”). The Board’s discussion arose out of the school calendar discussion, in which the Board had considered adopting a “modified balanced calendar” or some other non-traditional school calendar that would shorten the summer vacation and address learning loss during the summer.

As part of the work session, district assessment coordinator Roger Jenni presented data which shows that, for all students in the district, summer learning loss is reflected in MAP test scores, which are consistently lower when the tests are administered in the fall that they were the previous spring. In other words, all students “slide” during the summer (click images below to enlarge).



But the problem is particularly acute for children whose families don’t have the resources to provide them with summer enrichment opportunities. And as Yglesias explains: “Most distressingly, the impact is cumulative. Poor kids tend to start school behind their middle-class peers, and then they fall further behind each and every summer, giving teachers and principals essentially no chance of closing the gap during the school year.”

The question remains: what is to be done about summer learning loss, and the cumulative achievement gap associated with it? Some form of “year-round” school, such as the 45-15 calendar presented as an option during the calendar discussion this past spring, may have been one way of addressing the problem for all students. But “year-round” school would force the majority of students to give up some of their summer enrichment activities, such as summer camp or family trips or 4-H. The community, as represented by those who participated in the calendar discussion, was clear that this was not an acceptable solution.

What about summer targeted services—that is, educational services available in the summer months for students identified as academically “at-risk”? These are available in Northfield in the form of SummerPLUS, but the funding for these services is limited, the program is optional (and thus doesn’t reach all of the students who might benefit), and the data on the benefit of the program is inconclusive. As it stands, SummerPLUS students don’t show consistent gains in achievement on standardized tests after participating in the program (see pages 10-13 in the data report linked below).

What are your thoughts about what should be done to address summer learning loss and the achievement gap? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

For the full data report presented to the School Board at its July 8th work session, click the link below (.pdf):

Data Report 7/8/13