10/07/2010 09:07 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Summer Learning Essential to Education Reform

The state of American education has received an extraordinary amount of attention in the last few weeks, and summer -- as both a problem and an opportunity -- has had a prominent place in the conversation.

Education Nation, the education summit convened by NBC in which I was honored to take part, combined with the opening of the movie "Waiting for 'Superman' " to create a rare opportunity for Americans from all walks of life to discuss what's broken about our educational system, and how we can and must make it better for our kids.

President Obama called for more learning time for students, pointing out the well-documented problem of summer learning loss. He quickly acknowledged, though, that adding days to the school calendar would have a significant cost. That reality was seized upon by school officials around the country who see the need to add instructional time -- but instead find themselves cutting back on summer school to meet tight budgets during these recessionary times.

But there is a way to answer the President's call that doesn't require remaking the school calendar or renegotiating complicated teacher contracts. It lies in high-quality programs like Summer Advantage, recently cited by the Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction for producing two months' gain in its students' language arts and math skills last summer. It's visible in a seventh-grade summer school program in Council Bluffs, Iowa that was held at the zoo, and in the Minneapolis Public Schools, where middle schoolers went canoeing to study water ecology.

These programs offer the flexibility, the choice, and the academic quality to make a real difference for the young people who need it most -- many of whom, contrary to conventional wisdom, actually want to learn in summer. An Afterschool Alliance report found recently that 24 million kids, more than half of those who don't participate in summer learning programs, would enroll if they could.

The best of these programs, many of them highlighted in the National Summer Learning Association's New Vision for Summer School, combine the change of scenery that is so attractive about summer with a change of curriculum that can stimulate the brain, actually inspiring kids to learn in new ways -- even to find their passions in life -- while also reinforcing the fundamental academics they need to succeed. They're not just for students who need to catch up, but for those who long to move ahead.

There are literally billions of dollars available right now to the 5,000 lowest-performing schools in this country to support transforming, turning around, restarting, or closing those schools. There's a huge potential role for summers and for nonprofit organizations to play in this work. One strategy that's explicitly embraced by the United States Department of Education is for schools to launch summer transition programs for kids moving from eight to ninth grade. Quality summer learning programs can help improve outcomes on student attendance, behavior, and course completion -- the so-called ABCs that are critical for high school graduation.

Summer is truly a time to solidify and build on school-year gains. Real school reform and transformation is a difficult enterprise -- one that should involve a range of people including community and faith-based organizations. We should also get serious about using all 12 months of the year to support this work --- but in a way that rewards quality, innovation, and inspiration.