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

Summer Learning Loss, Which Is Disproportionate and Cumulative, Contributes Substantially to the Achievement Gap

Research indicates that, on average, students lose skills over the summer, particularly in mathematics. However, not all students experience "average" losses, and summer learning loss disproportionately affects low-income students. Low-income students lose substantial ground in reading during the summer, while their higher-income peers often gain. Most disturbing is that it appears that summer learning loss is cumulative and that, over time, these periods of differential learning rates between low-income and higher-income students contribute substantially to the achievement gap in reading. It may be that efforts to close the achievement gap during the school year alone will be unsuccessful.

Students Who Attend Summer Programs Have Better Outcomes Than Similar Peers Who Do Not Attend These Programs

Rigorous studies of voluntary summer programs, mandatory summer programs, and programs that encourage students to read at home in the summer have all found positive effects on student achievement. The combined evidence from these studies suggests that all of these types of summer learning programs can mitigate summer learning losses and even lead to achievement gains. Moreover, longitudinal studies conclude that the effects of summer learning programs endure for at least two years after the student has engaged in the summer program. (No studies have examined whether effects last beyond two years.)

Strategies for Maximizing Quality, Enrollment, and Attendance Are Critical to Achieving Benefits

Not all summer learning programs result in positive outcomes for enrollees. Programming needs to be high-quality, and students need to enroll and attend regularly. Research points to several practices that are associated with program quality, including individualized instruction, parental involvement, and small class sizes. For voluntary summer learning programs, providers need to adopt targeted strategies to build enrollment and maximize attendance among enrollees. Several effective strategies were offered by the program staff we interviewed. Notifying parents early before they make other plans for the summer was important in maximizing enrollment. Offering engaging enrichment activities, providing transportation, and offering full-day programs, which better suit the needs of working families, were noted as methods of increasing enrollment and encouraging high attendance rates.

Cost Is the Main Barrier to Implementing Summer Learning Programs

Providing a high-quality summer learning program can cost between $1,109 and $2,801 per child for a six-hour-per-day, five-week program. Although preliminary evidence suggests that the cost of summer school programs can be less than two-thirds of what providers spend on programs during the academic year (on a per-slot, per-week basis), summer programs nonetheless represent an additional cost to districts, especially relative to other interventions that simply update or reform practices used during the school year.

Districts Question the Cost-Effectiveness of Summer Learning Programs, and Many Have Discontinued Them in Response to Budget Cuts

Interviewees from the National Summer Learning Association indicated that, given the costs, districts are uncertain of the value they would get from a summer learning program. Furthermore, some of our interviewees who are currently offering summer learning programs questioned the extent to which the benefits of the program outweigh the costs. In fact, the recent economic downturn has created such severe shortfalls in state education budgets that many districts across the country have cut what little summer school programming they have offered. However, district leaders who are committed to such programs have found creative ways to fund them.

Partnerships Can Strengthen Summer Learning Programs

The majority of the summer learning programs examined in this study were provided by or operated in partnership with districts, and we found benefits from these partnerships. We found that summer learning programs cost less when offered by school districts due, in part, to lower central office costs and in-kind contributions of services, such as facilities and meals. In addition, districts can leverage consistent sources of funding (e.g., Title I or general operating funds) for such programs, creating a greater likelihood of sustainment. We also found that partnerships between districts and community-based organizations (CBOs) provided increased benefits and lowered costs. CBOs offered opportunities for enrichment beyond those typically offered in schools, such as kayaking and fencing, that encouraged students to enroll and attend—steps critical to program effectiveness. We also found that CBO instructors were less expensive than certified teachers. Thus, partnerships between these two types of organizations resulted in lower costs overall. Further, in one city, provision of enrichment opportunities attracted local foundation funding for summer programs.

Developing and Sustaining District-Based Voluntary Summer Learning Programs Is Challenging but Feasible

Interviewees reported that launching a summer learning program that serves a high proportion of low-performing students is challenging. Early implementation challenges include establishing consistent expectations for the program, navigating internal district bureaucracies, and partnering with local CBOs. Ongoing challenges to maintaining a summer learning program include funding (particularly during times of constrained school budgets), facilities constraints due to building maintenance or lack of air conditioning, low or uncertain enrollment, and an underspecified or unsupported vision for the summer program. Interviewees also reported that the lack of evaluations and teacher contract rules threatened the quality of their programs. Despite these challenges, some urban districts have long-standing summer learning programs, and others have launched new programs over the last few years. Challenges can be overcome by supportive leaders who can find and dedicate funding, as well as ensure that qualified staff devote time to early planning, early hiring, and early recruiting for summer learning programs.

Recommendations for Districts and Providers

Districts and communities must decide for themselves whether the potential value of these programs is worth the cost and effort of establishing and sustaining them. But our analysis suggests that they should be seriously considered within the context of the needs and resources available to districts and communities. Rigorous studies have shown that strong summer programs can achieve several important goals: reverse summer learning loss, achieve learning gains, and give low-performing students the chance to master material that they did not learn during the previous school year.

Here, we offer a set of recommendations for districts and other providers that want to invest in summer learning programs. Specifically, we recommend that districts and providers invest in staffing and planning for summer learning programs, actively incorporate practices that will help ensure the success of programs, and maximize the benefits of partnerships and a variety of funding sources.

Invest in Highly Qualified Staff and Early Planning

Developing high-quality summer programs can be challenging. We found that providers that succeeded in developing a well-structured program that attracted students to enroll and attend had high-quality, dedicated year-round administrators with time devoted to planning and programming. Planning began early in the school year. Early planning allowed programs to conduct early hiring (thereby maximizing their teacher recruiting pool) and early recruiting (thereby maximizing student enrollment).

Embed Promising Practices into Summer Learning Programs

Research shows that a number of practices are associated with improved student outcomes, such as smaller class sizes, involving parents, providing individualized instruction, and maximizing students' attendance. Other best practices include providing structures that support high-quality instruction, aligning the school year and summer curricula, including content beyond remediation, and tracking effectiveness. Providers also need to adopt strategies for attracting students to these programs to ensure value for their investment, such as print and radio advertising; advertising at community meetings, summer learning fairs, and even grocery stores; targeted recruiting of students living in housing projects, including door-to-door recruiting and phone calls to parents; student and teacher focus groups; and CBO recruiting among students in their after-school programs.

Consider Partnerships When Developing Summer Learning Programs

Partnerships may enable the creation and sustainment of high-quality voluntary summer learning programs. We found benefits from partnerships between school districts and CBOs that included a wider variety of programming options, and more varied funding sources. However, a number of other partnerships may be beneficial, as several types of organizations have an interest in promoting summer learning experiences for youth—districts, CBOs, private summer learning providers, cities, and local funders. Each of these organizations has a set of resources and skills that can help build sustainable summer learning programs. We encourage leaders to consider all local resources and build appropriate partnerships when developing these programs.

Think Creatively About Funding

There are several pots of funding from which districts can draw to support summer learning programs. Researchers have documented, for example, more than 100 programs that can support summer learning. The National Summer Learning Association provides guidelines for funding summer learning programs on its website. This monograph provides other funding ideas, such as hiring AmeriCorps students and hiring teachers who need administrative hours to serve as summer site coordinators. Partnering with local CBOs can also result in economies of scale, as noted earlier.

Recommendations for Policymakers and Funders

Finally, we offer recommendations for policymakers and funders who are interested in supporting summer learning programs: Extend the research base on the efficacy of summer learning programs and support stable funding for new and existing programs.

Extend the Research Base

Although research has established the efficacy of summer learning programs, it has not tested several aspects of such programs when offered to large numbers of low- performing students in urban settings. Rigorous, longitudinal research on large programs would provide valuable information to policymakers and practitioners. In particular, we make the following recommendations:

  • Conduct randomized controlled trials of programs designed to maximize attendance that compare treated to nontreated students over multiple years.
  • Conduct studies that include multiple outcomes beyond academic performance: secondary academic outcomes, such as school attendance and graduation rates, and nonacademic outcomes, such as reductions in juvenile delinquency, improved nutrition, and increases in exercise. Including a range of outcomes will help motivate other stakeholders, such as city governments, to support or fund summer learning programs.
  • Conduct studies that examine whether programs can be constructed to attract high levels of participation in multiple, consecutive years of programming. If so, the studies should evaluate the effects of consecutive years of participation on a range of student outcomes.
  • Conduct studies of the cost-effectiveness of summer learning programs to help district leaders and other policymakers consider how best to invest in improving education.

Support Consistent Funding Sources for Summer Learning Programs

A key obstacle to providing summer learning programs is a lack of stable funding. Policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels can work to provide funding for summer programming by specifying that existing funding targeted to high-need youth can be used for summer programming, by establishing new funding for programs, and by fundraising for summer programming. The school district officials whom we spoke with who run summer learning programs independently confirmed that funding was contingent on the support of key leaders, including the superintendent, local politicians, and local foundations.

Provide Clear Guidance Regarding the Use of Scarce Funds

District leaders described the difficulty of braiding multiple funding sources together, given the restrictions and requirements associated with each source of funds. State policymakers could support district efforts by providing clear guidance on how federal and state funds can be combined to support summer programs.


Many people helped in conducting this study and producing this monograph. We would like to thank those at The Wallace Foundation for their substantive and financial support. In particular, Edward Pauly and Ann Stone provided valuable guidance on the intellectual and analytic components of our work. Dara Rose, Richard Laine, Christine DeVita, Pam Mendels, and Lucas Held provided other substantive insights.

Representatives from school districts, mayors' offices, CBOs, and local provider organizations also contributed their time and expertise, especially on implementation issues and cost. Representatives from some of the national provider organizations were very generous with their time and expertise and contributed substantially to the study, especially in providing details on likely costs.

The document itself benefited from the input of internal and external reviewers, including Lynn Karoly and Geoffrey Borman, and from the contributions of Laura Zakaras and Lauren Skrabala, who helped prepare the final manuscript. We acknowledge their help in improving this document.

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