Recognition of the importance of summer to the traditional school
year is growing nationally, as more districts realize just how
detrimental months away from school can be to students –
especially those who are already struggling academically.
But how best to use the summertime to foster student learning and
development remains undetermined, although more research has
emerged on what works best.
Additionally, districts and communities are finding new ways to
combine resources to keep summer programs sustainable so
long-term impacts can be yielded, while battling to prove worth
for the budget line expense.
What does the research say?
The research on “summer learning loss,” or the academic knowledge
that students lose over the summer months, is not new, but it is
a growing field.
While teachers have long complained about having to re-teaching
material from the previous academic year to students at the start
of the fall semester, studies show summer brain drain may require
more significant interventions than providing a refresher class
on math concepts.
One of the first well-regarded and highly publicized studies came
out of the 1980s when Karl Alexander, a professor from Johns
Hopkins University, followed a cohort of students from elementary
school through high school. Alexander found that summer learning
losses were disproportionately experienced by students tied to
socio-economic status: each summer, low-income students fell
further behind their more affluent peers in core academic
In fact, Alexander’s research determined that the losses over the
summer accrued with each passing summer, and by the ninth grade,
these losses could account for two-thirds of the achievement gap
that exists between disadvantaged and more advantaged
Alexander concluded that disadvantaged students often lack access
to the enriching learning experiences such as camps or visits to
cultural institutions like museums their peers experience during
the summer. These experiences can stimulate learning, foster
vocabulary skills, and generally encourage student growth, but
without them, these differences in opportunity contribute to
widening the achievement gap.
Research on summer slide has expanded since Alexander’s research,
showing that disadvantaged students lose substantially more
reading knowledge over the summer months than their well-off
peers. Additionally, while the learning loss is disproportionate,
all students lose math knowledge in the summer months.
What summer learning programs can do
But while growing body of research proving the existence of
summer slide exists, new research is emerging that shows some
high-quality learning programs can help reduce it.
The Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corporation, for example,
published a study in 2011 that found well-crafted summer programs
that blend academics and enrichment could reduce the summer slide
students experienced. Low-income students who attend high quality
summer programs were found to have fewer learning losses than
those who did not attend these programs.
Since the release of that study, RAND has continued to
investigate what types of programs reduce slide more than others
by following a group of five school districts that have provided
free summer programs of five to six weeks (or more) for
low-income elementary school students.
Funded by The Wallace
Foundation, the ongoing study is determining what structure
and components the programs should provide to have a greater
impact on summer slide. Additionally, as more districts are
shifting their offerings from remediation to more comprehensive,
high quality programs, a number are running independent
evaluations to determine how well they are addressing learning
However, while research on summer loss and summer programs is
growing, there is a limited amount of research that shows what
the long-term impact of attending high quality summer programs
can have on students over time, due to the more recent emergence
of some of these types of initiatives.
What works best?
Still, there have been some conclusions drawn about what
components that make some programs more effective than others.
More and more districts are shifting away from the traditional
summer school programs of the past – ones that typically focused
on credit-recovery for students who did not perform well in the
previous school year. These programs have been found to have
limited effectiveness on student academic growth and serve
smaller percentages of students, summer learning advocates say.
The RAND research findings, and organizations working in the
summer learning space, such as the National Summer Learning
Association, recommend that programs maintain distinctness
from traditional school year while still promoting academic
learning for at least three to four hours a day.
The programs should provide additional resources too, such as
hands-on enrichment, physical activities, and new experiences
like field trips that students would not typically have access to
during the academic year. Generally speaking, students should be
engaged in all types of learning while also having fun, they say.
Additionally, many of the higher quality summer programs emerging
— either district or community-based — are targeting students
at critical junctures in K-12. These include the transition to
middle or high school (called “bridge” programs) or before the
start of kindergarten. Others are reaching out to older students
who may need additional support for college or workforce
According to some districts and summer learning advocates, these
newer programs also provide an opportunity for teachers to try
out new methods of instruction — such as digital learning –
or to delve more deeply into subjects than the constraints
of the regular school calendar allows. Chicago Public
Schools, for example, recently offered students the opportunity
to earn digital badges for the summer skills/experiences learned
in their programs.
However, the research is still limited on whether these programs
can yield long-term gains for students, particularly for those
who spend consecutive summers participating. Some programs, such
as the Horizons
National program, aim to keep the same students attending for
consecutive summers given that results seem to be more
How do districts afford this?
Even with the growth of new and improved summer programs, though,
the majority of teachers are still report spending significant
amounts of time re-teaching material from the previous year.
The National Summer Learning Association reported in 2013 that
two-thirds of teachers polled said they spent at least three to
four weeks re-teaching old material; nearly a fourth said they
spent five to six weeks.
Some of this “summer brain drain” could be tied to the limits in
numbers of programs that can be offered or how many students can
be served, due to financial constraints. Even though the research
on summer slide exists (and is growing) paying for summer
programs still seems to be a challenge for school districts and
Many districts report that they do not have the capacity to serve
the student demand, with waiting lists and lotteries for slots in
the programs each summer. This demand is not only coming from
low-income families, the districts say: All parents,
particularly those with full time jobs, are looking for ways to
engage their children in learning
Additionally, some districts are now being pushed to get more
creative with resources than ever before. After the recession,
federal stimulus funding helped districts support an expansion of
their summer programming, but given the one-time nature of the
funding, after several summers the money dried up and districts
have had to find funds elsewhere to keep programs afloat.
A number have found a blend of resources, ranging from Title I
dollars to community donations, are the only way to keep these
programs sustainable, given that tight school budgets often mean
a battle to prove the legitimacy of using funds for summer
Additionally, others have found support from organizations
including Wallace and The MacArthur Foundation, which
have put significant dollars into funding local programs in
recent years. And in 2012, for example, the Walmart
gave roughly $20 million for summer initiatives, $4 million
of which went to five school districts for their summer programs.
Other districts have tried to be creative not only with blending
funding streams, but in how they provide programming, such
working directly with community partners like the YMCA to
provide enhanced offerings or taking advantage of free community
resources like libraries and parks to expand activities.. Some
partner directly with organizations like BELL (Building Educated
Leaders for Life) or Summer Advantage USA to
provide programs for free or reduced cost.
Many say the key to providing high quality summer programs in a
local district is recognizing the importance of summer on K-12 as
a whole, and that what a student does/does not experience over
the summer will have a direct link to how that student performs
during the school year.