High-quality, school district-run summer learning programs can increase student achievement and provide other benefits, research has shown. Findings in this report, the second of a planned three from the Westat research organization’s National Summer Learning and Enrichment Study, can help build a better understanding of the role state education agencies can play in fostering strong summer learning programs. The report also offers insights into how state summer learning efforts that were launched as a response to the pandemic could have benefits beyond the health crisis.
The backdrop to this report and the study overall is the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, which led to major disruptions to education—and, consequently, widespread learning loss for U.S. students. In March 2021, the U.S. Department of Education called on state education agencies (SEAs) and school districts to try to address the problem by delivering high-quality K-12 summer learning opportunities on a large scale. Unprecedented federal funding, provided through the American Rescue Plan, came through, giving districts and SEAs new opportunities to shape summer learning and ensure it featured the elements of high-quality programming, such as enrichment activities in addition to academics.
The study examines how this played out in summer 2021. The first report, published in fall 2022, captures how school districts across the country mobilized in response to the Department’s call. Researchers found that fully 94 percent of school districts delivered summer learning programming in 2021, reaching, on average, nearly one-fifth (18 percent) of their student population.
This report captures how state education agencies responded, drawing on an analysis of American Rescue Plan spending plans from the 50 states and Washington, D.C., as well as interviews with knowledgeable education officials from 37 states.
Among the findings, which are presented in a slide presentation:
- States influenced summer learning using a range of approaches that stemmed from factors including whether they formed a vision for summer 2021, and how that vision was shaped. They also identified four levers that influenced policy and practice:
- How states allocated funding,
- Whether they chose to engage partner organizations, such as municipal agencies and nonprofits,
- The priorities they established for school districts in implementing summer learning programs, and
- The priorities they established for school districts in evaluating summer learning programs.
- A majority of states (30 of the 37) developed a summer learning and enrichment vision in response to the call to action, according to the interviews.
- The majority of states distributed the federal funding through a grants program. Of the 37 states in the states in the study, 17 awarded funding to districts only, 12 awarded funding to both districts and community-based organizations, and 8 awarded funding to community-based organizations only.
- Some 62 percent of SEAs (23 of the 37) confirmed that they had engaged with partners to help plan for summer programming.
- Many SEAs set priorities for summer programming, with the vast majority (78 percent), asking districts to include social and emotional elements in their work.
- Most states (71 percent) required districts or community organizations to collect data and report on participation and/or outcomes.
States encountered a number of challenges in their new summer learning roles. One was finding ways to overcome historical perceptions of summer learning as punitive or solely a vehicle for credit recovery. Another was that, in some cases, state authority to set priorities for use of the federal funds was limited by state law.
The report also identifies four strategies that states can use to sustain and strengthen their role in summer learning going forward. These are: 1) define (or refine) a vision for summer learning that is both meaningful and feasible; 2) understand and use the four policy levers (funding, partnering, and setting implementation and evaluation priorities); 3) start planning for summer learning no later than January of the same year; and 4) develop a communications strategy to make sure districts and families understand the benefits of summer learning.
Westat is planning a third publication to present findings from the overall study.