It has spread across Massachusetts as a school turnaround strategy: bring students into school over spring break for hours and hours of extra instruction.
That could be a recipe for unhappy kids. But recent research in Lawrence and now Springfield, two Massachusetts towns under pressure to improve their schools, suggests that students don’t mind spending those weeks in school — and they really benefit from it.
In Springfield, students who participated were much more likely to score proficient on state exams later that year. They were less likely to be suspended afterwards, too.
“This is a minimally disruptive strategy for helping struggling students catch up,” said Beth Schueler of the University of Virginia, who studied the program. “You don’t have to fire or find a large pool of new teachers.”
It’s the latest research pointing to the benefits of intensive small group tutoring. But the Springfield program wasn’t open to all: Students were invited based on whether they were seen as likely to benefit and to behave, raising questions about whether the model helps the kids who need it most.
What are these vacation academies?
Schueler’s study focuses on nine low-achieving middle schools in Springfield, all part of a partnership between the state, local teachers union, and district formed to head off a state takeover. The spring break program (known as “empowerment academies”) started in 2016, during the partnership’s first year, in a bid to boost test scores.
Springfield’s April vacation academy focused on math — particularly on the academic standards that frequently come up on state exams, the researchers noted. Classes were small, with about one teacher for every 10 students. It amounted to an additional 25 hours of math instruction, or approximately an extra month worth of exponents and equations.
The idea was extra math help, yes, but also designed to be appealing for students. Schools feature award assemblies and special theme days, like crazy hair days or superhero and villain dress-up days.
“It’s not just boot camp,” said Chris Gabrieli, the head of a nonprofit that helped implement the city’s turnaround approach. “If this was miserable for kids, it would never work the second year.”
The model was pioneered by Jeff Riley, now the Massachusetts commissioner of education, as principal of a Boston middle school. He took the idea to Lawrence as the head of that district’s state takeover.
Who got to attend?
Students were chosen for the program based on who was seen as likely to benefit and behave. That meant leaders avoided students with attendance or behavior issues, an approach used at the school where Riley piloted the model, too.
In Springfield, once the school decided which students were eligible, leaders allowed Schueler to randomly assign some the opportunity to attend or not in order to study the program. (Some students who didn’t win a spot attended anyway, and some students who won a spot didn’t attend, something the study accounted for.)
Ultimately, the students who went to vacation academy were different than the student population as a whole — only 10 percent had a disability, compared to 22 percent of all sixth- and seventh-graders in the district. Attendees were also somewhat more likely to be girls, but were equally likely to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
Teachers applied to work over the break, and got bonuses — $2,500 in Springfield — for doing so.
How does the program affect students?
In terms of test scores, students on the cusp of clearing the state’s proficiency bar saw the biggest gains.
Students at school over spring break were much more likely to score proficient on the state math test: about 35 percent did compared to 25 percent of similar students who didn’t attend, according to Schueler’s study, published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Education Finance and Policy.
Their average test scores were higher than those of students who didn’t attend the academy, though that boost wasn’t statistically significant.
Students were also less likely to be suspended after the vacation academy. While about 10 percent of control students were suspended once or more, less than 7 percent of students who went to the academy were.
The academy also may have helped students’ grades, with averages in both math in reading improving slightly, though that was not statistically significant.
How a student benefited may be connected to which version of the program he or she attended. In some academy programs, students had one teacher all day; in others they rotated among teachers who worked on different standards. Students in the first group saw bigger declines in suspensions; students in the second group saw larger test-score gains.
“It could be that the additional time … provided by the stability of a single teacher allowed for the development of more deep and positive teacher-student relationships,” Schueler wrote. “It is also possible that the program changed educator perceptions of participating students in a way that decreased their likelihood to turn to exclusionary discipline for those children.”
Should other districts adopt this model?
This kind of intensive academic help has been shown to work over and over again. A previous study found test score improvements from the same vacation academy model in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and programs that provide individualized tutoring throughout the year have produced even bigger gains in Boston, Chicago and Houston.
But these programs have faced difficulty growing because they come with a hefty price tag — sometimes upwards of a few thousand dollars per student. The Springfield program costs about $600 per student, which is lower because its student-teacher ratio is higher.
Tutoring, Schueler said, “has a high upfront cost that I think deters many districts from pursuing this as a key strategy. These vacation academies are potentially a more scalable approach.”
It still might be a worthwhile investment for districts. But they will have to contend with the fact that the model doesn’t include certain students — particularly those with behavior and attendance problems, who could be in the most academic trouble.
“This is not an intervention aimed at helping every single kid of every type,” said Gabrieli.
Of students who didn’t participate in the program, Schueler said, “We don’t know, if they actually ended up coming, if we would see the same effects.”