New research finds benefits to targeted summer learning programs

Summer programs can provide significant academic and social benefits for children and can help to close achievement gaps through the use of fun and unique curricula for kids, but not all programs are created equal.

RAND researchers identified about 40 summer programs that were linked to positive outcomes for students. These summer programs were also classified as meeting strong, moderate, or promising evidence standards under the national Every Student Succeeds Act. ESSA calls on schools to adopt programs that are proven through research to improve student outcomes if those programs receive federal funding.

Authors of the latest report said that summertime can be used to provide learning opportunities and programs that support improved academic achievement, physical health, mental health, and social and emotional well-being. High quality summer programs can also provide students with chances to acquire new skills or develop their interests.

Though researchers have debated just how much information is lost to the summer vacation months, past studies have shown that students can lose up to two months’ worth of reading and math skills developed over the course of the previous school year–a phenomena known as the “summer slide.”

This lack of retention can result in students beginning the next grade behind, and forces teachers to have to spend more valuable learning time refreshing children on what they learned the prior year, rather than focusing on new skills.

RAND’s analysis found 43 summer program models that led to a variety of positive outcomes including student learning, social and emotional development and career skills across grade-levels. Researchers noted, however, that most programs were not able to improve all of the outcomes being measured. 

About 75 percent of programs studied were effective in improving at least one outcome, though, suggesting summer programs could be used for targeted improvements for students who demonstrate a need for additional support in specific areas, such as science or reading.

The majority of rigorous evaluations on different types of programs were concentrated on academic programs focused on improving reading achievement, researchers wrote. They suggested that more research be conducted on the efficiency of summer programs that aim to provide addition instruction in mathematics or science, or programs to improve children’s physical health or social and emotional well-being. More research should also be directed at summer programs that offer older students career training opportunities, RAND researchers concluded.

Researchers also recommended that when selecting or developing summer programs, schools make a point to seek out those that would be a good fit for the children in their local community whom they serve.

Summer programs can be used to take advantage of valuable time to promote various outcomes for children who may need extra help outside of the regular school year, they wrote in their report–especially when school and district leaders invest in programs that are intentionally designed and implemented to meet specific student needs.