Making Summer Count: How Summer Programs Can Boost Children's Learning

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Making Summer Count: How Summer Programs Can Boost Children's Learning

During summer vacation, many students lose knowledge and skills. By the end of summer, students perform, on average, one month behind where they left off in the spring. Of course, not all students experience "average" losses. Summer learning loss disproportionately affects low-income students. While all students lose some ground in mathematics over the summer, low-income students lose more ground in reading, while their higher-income peers may even gain. Most disturbing is that summer learning loss is cumulative; over time, the difference between the summer learning rates of low-income and higher-income students contributes substantially to the achievement gap.

Because many students lose learning over the summer and some students need more time on task to master content, participation in summer learning programs should mitigate learning loss and could even produce achievement gains. Indeed, educators and policymakers are increasingly promoting summer learning as a key strategy to improving the achievement of low-performing students. In 2009, a Johns Hopkins University-based center for summer learning became an independent organization, the National Summer Learning Association, providing resources, guidance, and expertise to the summer learning community. In 2010, President Obama noted, "Students are losing a lot of what they learn during the school year during the summer."1 Earlier that year, First Lady Michelle Obama launched "United We Serve: Let's Read, Let's Move," a program that encourages Americans to fight the summer reading gap, acknowledging that youth who do not read during the summer can lose months of academic progress (White House, 2010).

Study Purpose and Research Questions

The Wallace Foundation is encouraging the establishment of district-supported summer learning programs, particularly for urban students in grades 1-8. To support this effort, The Foundation asked RAND to conduct a study to assess both the need for summer learning programs and the existing evidence on effective, viable, and sustainable summer learning programs in urban districts.

In this monograph, we address the following research questions:

  1. What is the nature of summer learning loss?
  2. Are summer learning programs effective in improving student achievement? What are the elements of effective summer programs?
  3. How much do summer learning programs cost?
  4. What are the facilitators and challenges to implementing summer programs?

Data and Methods

To answer our first two research questions, we conducted literature reviews on summer learning loss and the effectiveness of summer learning programs. To examine cost, we conducted a literature review to identify common funding sources for summer programs, collected detailed cost data from seven summer learning programs, and determined their costs and the primary reasons for the variation among them. To address the final question, regarding facilitators and challenges to implementing such programs, we conducted 15 telephone interviews: eight with providers (either school districts or programs affiliated with school districts) and seven with national nondistrict providers.

We also conducted site visits to five cities, where we interviewed summer learning leaders from among city and district representatives, summer learning staff, and external partners (more than 60 interviews in total). In four of the cities, we had the opportunity to observe summer learning. Cities selected for interviews and site visits were those that had a long history of providing summer programs or were considered by the national organizations to have particularly innovative programming or a particular context of interest, such as city-led programming or high proportions of English language learners.

Limitations and Contributions

This monograph does not include any independent analyses to determine the nature of summer learning loss or summer program effectiveness. Instead, it summarizes and draws out lessons from a set of existing research. While our independent cost analysis provides much-needed information for the field, it is limited to seven cases of academically oriented summer programming that operate at scale. Thus, it does not capture the cost range of all types of summer learning programs. In addition, because our findings and recommendations are drawn from a limited sample of summer programs that are not representative of all summer learning program contexts, they are not generalizable to all programs. In particular, by design, we spent more time studying programs provided by school districts than we did studying those provided by national or community-based summer learning providers. We also made no attempt to assess the quality of the summer programs that we visited.

Despite these limitations, this monograph makes an important contribution to the field by addressing both the value and the cost of summer learning programs. We synthesize evidence from the research about summer learning loss and the effectiveness of summer learning programs in preventing that loss. We also estimate the potential costs of such programs and provide lessons learned from districts and other providers about how to fund, implement, and sustain such programs.

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1.The remark was made during an interview on NBC's Today Show, September 27, 2010.