Teachers Lost Out on Professional Learning During the Pandemic. Here's How Summer Programs Could Help


Mar 5, 2021

High school teacher in classroom with students wearing face masks, photo by RichVintage/Getty Images

Photo by RichVintage/Getty Images

For thousands of teachers across the country, 2020 has been a year of uncertainty. With a rapidly changing teaching environment many teachers lacked access to their usual professional learning activities.

Academic summer programs for students that also offer professional learning opportunities for teachers might be one way that teachers could make up for lost time. But little is known about teacher professional learning in such programs. Our just-released study shows how summer teaching opportunities can be structured in ways that give teachers a chance to experiment, try out new student-centered ways of teaching, and get feedback on their practice.

We surveyed U.S. K–12 teachers nationally through RAND's American Teacher Panel (ATP) and studied BellXcel Summer (BXS), a summer program model that provides academic instruction to students and professional learning opportunities for teachers.

The idea of summer professional learning for teachers is nothing new. Prior to the pandemic, 99 percent of teachers surveyed through the ATP told us that they participated in one or more professional learning activities over the summer. These activities ranged from collaborating with colleagues to taking an online class to reading relevant books and articles. Most teachers saw their chosen activities as helpful for improving their instruction. But in general, the activities in which teachers participated offered few opportunities to receive developmental feedback on their classroom practice.

Prior to the pandemic, 99 percent of teachers surveyed through the ATP told us that they participated in one or more professional learning activities over the summer.

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We looked to the BXS program to learn what conditions might support positive summer learning experiences for teachers. Nearly all teachers in BXS sites told us that their summer programs offered supportive, positive teaching environments with manageable class sizes, multiple adults in the classroom, and the absence of the strict curriculum pacing or testing requirements that are common during the school year. According to teachers, these supports enabled them to experiment with new classroom strategies and focus on positive behavior management and developing students' social and emotional competencies.

The supports present in BXS program sites suggest ways that academic summer programs for students—run by districts and external providers alike—can incorporate teacher professional learning.

Look for opportunities that already exist. Make teacher professional learning an intentional piece of summer programs for students by offering opportunities for teachers to access developmental feedback on their classroom practices (in-person or virtually).

Create a lower-pressure environment. Explore how to take the pressure off teachers in summer programs for students. Solutions will vary by context but could include limiting testing requirements, adjusting the scope of content teachers must cover, reducing class sizes, or staffing more than one adult in each classroom.

Focus on strategies teachers can use during the school year. BXS teachers reported that they were able to focus on student-centered practices, such as students' social and emotional skill development and positive behavior management strategies during the summer in a way they felt they could not during the school year. They planned to use these newly honed skills when they returned back to school in the fall. Consider how academic summer programs for students might be used to help teachers develop student-centered strategies to support all students in the next school year.

While teaching is never easy, it is likely that next year will continue to be particularly challenging. The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequities that affect students' ability to learn and nearly all students have been affected by school closures. Teachers who are willing to teach in summer programs may be able to find inspiration, insight, and new tools to help them deal with the challenges ahead.

Elizabeth D. Steiner is a policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation with expertise in education policy, and a member of the Pardee RAND Graduate School faculty. Laura Stelitano is also an associate policy researcher at RAND, focusing on K–12 education and policy implementation and on workforce development.