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What Innovation in Education Really Means – Doing What Works!

September 06, 2013

(Dr. Tiffany Cooper Gueye is chief executive officer of BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life), a national nonprofit that aims to transform the academic achievement, self-confidence, and life trajectories of children living in underresourced urban communities.)

Headshot_Tiffany-Cooper-GueyeWhen 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 phones in use in the United States. Today the number of active wireless devices stands at 326 million and the majority of them are tablets or smartphones -- devices that were 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 changed forever.

Sadly, we've seen no such transformation in education since the enactment of legislation that was meant to shine a light on student achievement gaps and schools with consistently poor outcomes. Yes, government leaders are quick to trumpet the latest "innovation" in the field and "experts" obsess over every fad and new technology, but poor schools and student achievement gaps are as much a part of the education landscape today as they were in 2002. And that's a shame, because 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's most needed clearly compromises student achievement and school success. Indeed, we have decades of research quantifying the reality of summer learning loss and a growing body of evidence about the value of summer learning programs. Yet for millions of children, summer learning loss is an accepted fact of life.

The good news is that some school districts and communities have discarded the outdated notion of "summer school" and are finding ways to partner with nonprofits, universities, and philanthropic organizations to identify, access, and allocate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, these and other 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 in the past.

Working collaboratively, districts and their nonprofit and philanthropic partners also are creating "laboratories" where they can test and refine school-year reforms and 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 and makes a huge difference in students' lives. 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.

While the initiatives mentioned above reach only a fraction of the students who need access to high-quality summer learning opportunities in those communities, their success shows it can be done. Teachers and administrators get it. Students get it. Isn't it about time such efforts became the norm rather than the exception? After all, if we can't focus on and commit to something we already know works, what expectations should we have about how long it will take for new innovations to deliver on their promise?

-- Tiffany Cooper Gueye

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