Children from low-income families experience setbacks in the summer relative to their wealthier peers, but too little has been known about possible solutions.
How We Are Tackling It
Wallace launched the National Summer Learning Project in 2011, supporting voluntary-attendance summer learning efforts led by five public school districts and their community partners: Boston; Dallas; Duval County (Jacksonville), Fla.; Pittsburgh; and Rochester, N.Y. The goals of the project were to provide summer learning opportunities to thousands of children in low-income communities, help the districts improve their programs, and understand what effects, if any, they had on participating students as well as what factors shape programs that are sound and can endure. The RAND Corporation is conducting a wide-ranging, multi-volume study about the effort, examining issues including the programs’ impact and what makes for effective program planning and sustainability
At the outset of the effort, RAND looked closely at each district’s summer learning program, identifying strengths and weaknesses to inform program improvements. With two years of program enhancements under the districts’ belts, the researchers began an extensive study in 2013 to evaluate educational outcomes, focusing on children who were in third grade in spring of that year. The RAND research team used a number of methods, including, for parts of the research, a randomized controlled trial (RCT). The RCT began in 2013, focusing on children who were in third grade in spring of that year. The 5,600 students who applied to summer programs in the five districts were randomly assigned to one of two groups—those selected to take part in the programs for two summers and those not selected. Students selected to take part in a summer program scored higher on the math test taken in the fall of 2013, after the first summer, than the others. This edge in math was statistically significant but faded over time. One major possible explanation for this is that nearly half of the students did not show up for the second summer. In an RCT, students selected to take part in a program are included in the analysis whether they show up or not. Therefore, no-shows would dilute any effect there may be on the students who do attend.
Additional correlational analyses, controlled for prior academic performance, showed meaningful benefits for students who had a high rate of attendance, as detailed below.
The benefits of summer learning
One of the most noteworthy findings to come out of the study is the correlation the researchers discovered: Students who attended frequently saw educationally meaningful benefits in math and reading. Specifically, those who attended a summer program for 20 or more days in 2013 did better on state math tests in the fall and again in the spring than similar students who were not assigned to a program. This bump was statistically significant. Frequent attenders in 2014 outperformed students not assigned to a program in both math and English Language Arts on both fall tests and later in the spring. The difference in performance translates to 20 to 25 percent of the typical annual gain in math and 20 to 23 percent of the typical annual gain in English Language Arts. Frequent attenders also received higher scores on social-emotional assessments.
It needs to be noted that based on the experience of the National Summer Learning Project, not every student will attend frequently. Maintaining a high rate of attendance is challenging and requires attention.
Wallace funding for the district programs has ended, but research into the initiative is ongoing. In addition, Wallace has developed a number of resources stemming from the effort, including a summer learning toolkit with evidence-based tools and guidance for delivering effective programs and a Wallace Perspective detailing key lessons from the work.