All the leaves have fallen from the trees. There’s a chill in the air. ’Tis the season…for planning your district’s summer learning program?
That’s right, district leaders. Decide in the fall to offer a program and begin the planning process by January and you’ll run into fewer roadblocks when summer rolls around. That’s just one of more than 60 recommendations in the second edition of Getting to Work on Summer Learning: Recommended Practices for Success. This report from the RAND Corporation updates guidance to districts interested in launching a summer learning program or improving an existing one. It’s based on evaluations of five urban school districts participating in the National Summer Learning Project (NSLP), a Wallace-funded effort to understand whether and how voluntary district-run summer learning programs can help promote success in school.
The report answers such questions as when districts should begin work on their summer program, how they should hire and train teachers, what they should consider in choosing or developing a curriculum, which actions can help boost attendance and keep students on task, how to create a warm and welcoming environment and how to provide engaging enrichment experiences. Heather Schwartz, one of the authors of the report, guided us through some of the highlights.*
How did you arrive at the recommendations in the guide?
To develop our recommendations, we drew from over 900 interviews with summer teachers and administrators, 2,000 hours of observations of summer classes and 1,200 summer staff surveys that we collected over four summers. We believe this is the most comprehensive data currently available about voluntary, academic summer programs run by school districts and their community partners.
What's new in this second edition? How has your thinking evolved since the first edition?
Although most of the lessons from the first edition still stand, the second edition provides further and more detailed recommendations. For example, by the second edition we had learned that students who received a minimum of 25 hours of mathematics instruction and those receiving 34 hours of language arts in a summer performed better on the subsequent state math and ELA tests. These findings informed our recommendations in the second edition about the duration of the summer program, the number of hours of academics and ways for instructors to use intended instructional time more productively.
You provide a wealth of recommendations in the guide. Could you briefly highlight one or two of the most important?
Our most emphatic recommendation is to commit in the fall to a summer program. This means dedicating at least half of the time of a summer program director to actively start planning the summer program no later than January. The early planning should include attention to enrichment as well as to academics.
What did you learn about the cost of a high-quality summer program? What can districts to do to make their summer programs cost-effective?
The cost per student who attended at least one day of a program in summer 2014 ranged from $1,070 to $1,700 with an average of $1,340. Since staff is the largest component of a summer budget, an important way to control costs is to hire staff to achieve desired ratios based on projected daily attendance, not the number of enrollees. Of course, program designers should weigh the savings from cost-cutting measures against potential negative impacts on program quality. Other ways to lower costs include partnering with community organizations for enrichment activities, reducing the number of summer facilities since each carry fixed costs to operate them, centralizing some planning activities to avoid duplicated work, extending school-year curricula for use during the summer and continuing the program over time to capitalize on initial start-up investments.
Can you give a preview of what's still to come from the National Summer Learning Project?
There are four more reports coming out of the NSLP. In the first, we examine how district, city, state and federal policy support and constrain summer programming and we offer recommendations for policymakers and practitioners on navigating this policy landscape. In the second, we examine how student learning unfolds over the course of a calendar year, taking a close look at summer learning, in two urban school districts. In the third, we follow the students in the randomized controlled trial to see if those who went through the NSLP programs have different outcomes in seventh grade than the students in the control group. And, finally in the fourth report, we report on the efforts of NSLP communities to improve access to quality summer learning programming. The case studies in this final report should prove useful to other community leaders across the country.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.
For additional hands-on tools and guidance, including a sample program calendar, see the online Summer Learning Toolkit.