Summer has long been thought of as a break from the rigors of school. Increasingly, though, summer is becoming a time for programs: academic programs, sports and arts programs, programs that enable young people to explore their interests or build new skills. Policymakers, educators and others see summer programs as an opportunity to move the needle on academic and other outcomes and to help close the gaps in opportunity and achievement between students from low-income families and their more affluent peers. But with so many different types of programs out there, they may find themselves wondering which are worth investing in.
A new Wallace-commissioned report from the RAND Corporation has answers for anyone who needs help navigating the world of summer programs. Investing in Successful Summer Programs looks at the available research and offers detailed descriptions of 43 programs—some commercially available, some locally developed—that meet the top three of four levels of credible evidence of effectiveness described by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The rigor of the research behind these programs makes them eligible for certain significant sources of ESSA funding.
We talked by email with the lead authors of the report, Catherine Augustine and Jennifer Sloan McCombs, about how the evidence on summer learning stacks up and how providers and funders alike can put it to use.*
What is the need that this report is intended to fill?
Policymakers and practitioners all want to select evidence-based programs and approaches in order to maximize benefits for children and youth. Further, federal and state grant opportunities increasingly require practitioners to demonstrate that their proposed programs are evidence-based. Now, practitioners can use this report to demonstrate that their programs are evidence-based or to add evidence-based features to their programs, which should improve them. Funders can also use this report to get a better understanding of the types of summer programs that are evidence-based. This guide doesn’t just focus on academic summer programs—it contains information about programs promoting social and emotional well-being and career-related outcomes, as well.
Why does summer programming matter?
First, summer is an opportune time to provide programming that supports positive developmental outcomes or meets particular needs of certain children and youth, such as mental health needs. Second, summer programming may be particularly important to mitigate the opportunity and achievement gaps that exist between children from low-income families and their higher-income peers. We know from other research that lower-income children and youth are less likely to engage in sports, join clubs, or take private lessons. They are also more likely to stay indoors, and they have reduced access to healthy meals during the summer. We want all children to have access to enrichment during the summer for its own sake but also because participating in sports, clubs, lessons and the like leads to outcomes we care about such as identifying skills and interests that can be pursued throughout one’s life. Summer programming also matters because children and youth from lower-income families fall behind their wealthier peers academically over the summer. Finally, we want children and youth to have safe places to be during the summer, with healthy meals.
What are the headlines from your review of the evidence on the effectiveness of summer programs? What have you learned about what benefits summer programs can generate for children?
This review affirms that many types of summer programs can benefit children and youth. We found evidence of effectiveness for academic learning, learning at home, social and emotional well-being, and employment and career summer programs. Also, we found programs can be developed that benefit youth at all grade levels.
How can program providers use the report to guide their decision-making?
First, they can see if any of the 43 programs we highlighted as evidence-based contain the same features as their programs. If so, they can use the guide to argue that their program is evidence-based if they are applying for state or federal funding. Second, if their programs do not look like any of the programs in this guide, they can consider augmenting their programs to more closely resemble the ones we have identified as evidence-based. Third, if they do not want to change their program, but would like to have it rigorously evaluated, they can use this report to design an evaluation that could meet the highest three evidence tiers of ESSA, providing them with greater grant writing opportunities in the future. In addition, providers can use it to consider the range of programs that are available to meet particular needs of children and youth.
What advice do you have for a provider who may be seeking federal funding for a program that isn’t in the report and which doesn’t already have established evidence of effectiveness?
The provider should first check to determine if their program contains the same design features as any of the evidence-based programs we found to be effective. If that is not the case, providers should check to see if the funding stream they’re pursuing allows evidence at the Tier IV level. The programs described in this report meet the highest three evidence tiers defined in ESSA, but there is a fourth tier. Tier IV allows program providers to argue that their program is evidence-based if there is rigorous research underscoring at least part of the program’s logic model or theory of action. Tier IV also stipulates that the program (or one just like it) is currently being evaluated. If the provider can demonstrate that at least part of the program’s logic model is supported by rigorous research and that the program is currently being evaluated, the provider could apply for federal funding streams that allow Tier IV evidence.
What lessons does your review of the evidence have for state and federal policymakers? What can they do to promote effective summer programs?
State policymakers can share this review with practitioners in their state to raise awareness of the types of summer programs that have been found to be evidence based. They could encourage practitioners to design or amend programs to be similar to those described in the review. They can use this review to determine if programs proposed for state funding are indeed evidence-based. Federal policymakers can do the same when reviewing proposals. Finally, if they are allocating research funding, they can use the information to target research funding towards under-studied programs or populations. Most of the rigorously studied programs are academic learning programs offered in schools, focused on reading, and targeting elementary students. There were far fewer rigorous studies conducted for other types of programs or outcomes.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.