Summer Learning


Summer Learning

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.

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 subjects.

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 students. 

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 loss.

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 preparation.

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 substantial.

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 communities.

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 learning.

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 Foundation 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. 


75th EWA National Seminar
Orlando • July 24-26, 2022

National Seminar graphic

Celebrating 75 Years! 

As those in education and journalism work to recover from an extended pandemic, bringing together the community has never been more critical. The Education Writers Association’s 75th annual National Seminar will provide a long-awaited opportunity to gather in person for three days of training, networking, and inspiration. 

Blog: The Educated Reporter

How Will School Districts Leverage Stimulus Money for Summer Learning?
Here's why reporters should follow summer school plans in 2021 and post COVID-19.

Summer learning programs are offered across the country each year by school districts. But following the massive disruption of education sparked by COVID-19, there’s more pressure — and federal funding — to get it right, with meaningful and engaging learning opportunities in the summer.


How Summer ‘School’ Will Look Different This Year

Amid pressure to address massive learning disruption, student well-being, and inequities in opportunity, how are communities using this unusual summer?

School districts will have billions in fresh federal aid. You’ll hear more from district and community leaders during a May 4 session at the Education Writers Association’s 2021 National Seminar. These leaders are seizing the opportunity to innovate and build a bridge to the coming school year.

The participants were:

  • Aaron Philip Dworkin, National Summer Learning Association
  • Ebony Johnson, Tulsa Public Schools
  • Jennifer Peck, Partnership for Children and Youth
  • Erin Richards, USA Today (Moderator)

How Summer ‘School’ Will Look Different This Year


74th EWA National Seminar
Virtual, May 2-5, 2021

EWA 74th National Seminar  graphic

The Education Writers Association’s 74th National Seminar will focus on the theme of “Now What? Reporting on Education Amid Uncertainty.” Four afternoons of conversations, training and presentations will give attendees deeper understanding of these crises, as well as tools, skills and context to help them better serve their communities — and advance their careers. 

To be held May 2-5, 2021, the seminar will feature education newsmakers, including leaders, policy makers, researchers, practitioners and journalists. And it will offer practical data and other skills training. 


Get Embargoed Access to Learning Loss Report

Get Embargoed Access to Learning Loss Report

How much are students really learning during the pandemic?  

Get insight from one of the first national efforts to answer that question in this Education Writers Association’s webinar. Journalist attendees get embargoed access to the reading and math test results from the nearly 4.4 million U.S. students in grades 3-8 who took NWEA’s MAP® Growth™ assessments earlier this fall. 


73rd EWA National Seminar

EWA’s National Seminar is the largest annual gathering of journalists on the education beat. 

This multi-day conference is designed to give participants the skills, understanding, and inspiration to improve their coverage of education at all levels. It also will deliver a lengthy list of story ideas. We will offer numerous sessions on important education issues, as well as on journalism skills.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Threatened But Still Standing: The Federal Program for After-School, Summer Learning
Despite Trump's attempts to eliminate it, bipartisan support persists

Three times, the Trump administration has tried to ax federal funding for after-school and summer learning programs, and three times Congress has responded by adding more money to the pot.

Most recently, the U.S. House, where Democrats hold a majority, approved a $100 million increase for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative—the primary source of federal funds for local after-school and summer learning programs. That line item, which stills needs approval from the Republican-led Senate, would primarily support activities during the 2020-21 school year.


72nd EWA National Seminar
Baltimore • May 6-8, 2019

EWA’s National Seminar is the largest annual gathering of journalists on the education beat. This year’s event in Baltimore, hosted by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education, will explore an array of timely topics of interest to journalists from across the country, with a thematic focus on student success, safety, and well-being.


Summer Story Ideas for Education Reporters

Summer Story Ideas for Education Reporters

Summer break is upon us, and there’s a host of compelling stories to cover on the education beat while school is out.

In this EWA webinar, a summer learning expert explains the role summer break plays in widening achievement gaps, particularly for rural students, students with disabilities, and English-language learners. Also, the webinar highlights examples of innovative work afoot to provide students with powerful summer learning experiences.


71st EWA National Seminar
Los Angeles • May 16-18, 2018

EWA 71st National Seminar Los Angeles graphic

EWA’s National Seminar is the largest annual gathering of journalists on the education beat. This multiday conference provides participants with top-notch training delivered through dozens of interactive sessions on covering education from early childhood through graduate school. Featuring prominent speakers, engaging campus visits, and plentiful networking opportunities, this must-attend conference provides participants with deeper understanding of the latest developments in education, a lengthy list of story ideas, and a toolbox of sharpened journalistic skills.

EWA Radio

When Students Talk Back, These Teachers Listen
EWA Radio: Episode 139

What do teachers learn from their most challenging students – the interrupters, the ones who push back or whose difficult home lives spill over into the classroom? Sarah Carr, the editor of The Teacher Project at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, discusses a new podcast partnership with The Atlantic, featuring candid conversations with educators and students, as each recall pivotal moments in their relationships.


Summer Story Ideas: Local Angles on Federal Issues
Trump Budget, ESSA, Pell Grants ... and More!

Summer Story Ideas: Local Angles on Federal Issues

School’s out, but there’s no shortage of compelling summer stories to pursue on the education beat.

How might President Trump’s proposed budget cuts for education impact summer learning programs? How is your state incorporating summer learning into its revamped accountability plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)? What’s the latest on summer Pell Grants?

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Back-to-School: You Need Stories, We’ve Got Ideas

Back-to-School: You Need Stories, We’ve Got Ideas

The boys (and girls) are back in town. For class, that is.

See how forced that lede was? Back-to-school reporting can take on a similar tinge of predictability, with journalists wondering how an occasion as locked in as the changing of the seasons can be written about with the freshness of spring.

Recently some of the beat’s heavy hitters dished with EWA’s Emily Richmond about ways newsrooms can take advantage of the first week of school to tell important stories and cover overlooked issues.


School’s (Still) In: Smart Story Ideas on Summer Learning

School’s (Still) In: Smart Story Ideas on Summer Learning

While students are celebrating the start of the long summer break, there’s a significant tradeoff for the three months of leisure – on average, students will return to school in the fall a month behind where they performed in the spring. And the learning loss is even greater for low-income students, who are often already behind their better-off peers.


69th EWA National Seminar

The Education Writers Association, the national professional organization for journalists who cover education, is thrilled to announce that its annual conference will take place from Sunday, May 1, through Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in the historic city of Boston.

Co-hosted by Boston University’s College of Communication and School of Education, EWA’s 69th National Seminar will examine a wide array of timely topics in education — from early childhood through career — while expanding and sharpening participants’ skills in reporting and storytelling.

Boston, Massachusetts

Escaping the Ordinary: The Best Back-to-School Story Ideas
Back-to-School Webinar

Escaping the Ordinary: The Best Back-to-School Story Ideas

For education reporters, coming up with fresh angles for back-to-school stories is an annual challenge. Two veteran education journalists—Steve Drummond (NPR) and Beth Hawkins (MinnPost)—share smart tips for digging deep, and keeping ahead of the curve on the latest trends. We discuss new ways of approaching the first day of school, ideas for unique profiles, strategies for data projects and how to make the most of your publication’s multimedia resources. 


Blog: The Educated Reporter

Beyond NCLB: New Era in Federal Education Policy?

Screenshot of a tweet by @KristenRencher

Fifty years ago, the federal government enacted the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty. The newest version of the ESEA, the No Child Left Behind Act, became law 13 years ago and has stayed in place ever since. On Thursday, a new version of the federal government’s most far-reaching K-12 education law moved closer to adoption. The U.S. Senate passed the Every Child Achieves Act, one week after the U.S. House of Representatives passed its own version, the Student Success Act.


Summer Learning Story Ideas

Flickr/Jessica Lucia

School is out, and you’re sitting in your office wondering what to write about. EWA can help!

On Tuesday, June 9, EWA held a webinar on summer learning with literacy experts Sarah Pitcock of the National Summer Learning Association and Judy Blankenship Cheatham of Reading Is Fundamental.


Expanded Learning Time: A Summary of Findings from Case Studies in Four States
Center on Education Policy

Many low-performing schools across the nation have increased learning time in response to federal requirements for the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. The conditions governing federal waivers of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) also require certain schools to redesign the school day, week, or year to include additional time for student learning and teacher collaboration. Furthermore, the waivers allow greater flexibility to redirect certain federal funding streams toward increased learning time.


Ready for Fall? Near-Term Effects of Voluntary Summer Learning Programs on Low-Income Students’ Learning Opportunities and Outcomes

This report presents the first set of student outcome findings from The Wallace Foundation’s Summer Learning District Demonstration Project, a six-year effort looking at whether and how large-scale, voluntary summer learning programs led by public school districts can help improve educational outcomes for children in low-income, urban communities.


Ready for Fall? Near-Term Effects of Voluntary Summer Learning Programs on Low-Income Students’ Learning Opportunities and Outcomes
RAND Corporation

Prior research has determined that low-income students lose more ground over the summer than their higher-income peers. Prior research has also shown that some summer learning programs can stem this loss, but we do not know whether large, district-run, voluntary programs can improve students’ outcomes. To fill this gap, The Wallace Foundation launched the National Summer Learning Study in 2011. This five-year study offers the first-ever assessment of the effectiveness of large-scale, voluntary, district-run, summer learning programs serving low-income elementary students.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Follow-Up Friday: Get Up To Speed With EWA Webinars

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for EWA Summer School, our webinar series designed to help education reporters sharpen their skills, deepen their knowledge, and develop story ideas. If you missed out on the webinars the first time around, you can catch the replays:

Blog: The Educated Reporter

The Summer Jobs Slide

 Source: Flickr/a loves dc

The summer slide doesn’t just pertain to flagging academic skills while kids soak in the sun and skip the books. Increasingly, even as math and literacy fall by the wayside, high school students are losing out on access to summer wages.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

EWA Webinar: Reporting On Summer Learning

While students might be basking in a long summer break, that leisure time carries a heavy price tag: on average, students will return to school in the fall a month behind where they performed in the spring. And the learning loss is typically even greater for low-income students who were already behind their more affluent peers. 


Horizons National

A nonprofit group based in Westport, Conn. which provides support to local communities in developing summer learning opportunities for disadvantaged students.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

After-School Learning Advocates Hope Research Leads to More Federal Dollars

Learning doesn’t stop when the last bell of the day rings, but for most communities, money to support after-school activities is tight.

The largest federal grant program dedicated to learning outside of class – after school, before school and during summers – is roughly only $1.15 billion for the entire nation, for instance. The AfterSchool Alliance, an advocacy group, notes that of all the money spent on education outside of normal school hours, Uncle Sam only kicks in about a tenth. Parents, meanwhile, contribute three-quarters of the dollars spent in total.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Ten Questions To Ask On Expanded Learning Time

Amid the push to improve public education, a frequent complaint by educators is that there isn’t enough time in the school day to adequately cover everything students are supposed to be learning – or to address the myriad challenges they bring with them to class every day.


Expanding Learning, Enriching Learning: Portraits of Five Programs

These “Stories From the Field” describe five Wallace-funded programs working to expand learning and enrichment for disadvantaged children, so they can benefit from the types of opportunities their wealthier counterparts have access to, from homework help to swimming classes. The report details each program’s approach, successes and challenges, offering a well-rounded picture of the effort nationally to expand learning opportunities for low-income children—and the work that remains.


The Wallace Foundation

The Wallace Foundation is a national philanthropy, based in New York City, that aims to improve the educational opportunities for disadvantaged students. The foundation has invested heavily in research and resources aimed at improving the positive effect principals can have on school and student performance. They have also put significant funding toward expanded learning, summer learning, and after-school.


Getting to Work on Summer Learning: Recommended Practices for Success

This report offers guidance to school district leaders interested in launching or improving summer learning programs. The recommendations – start planning in January and stick to a firm enrollment deadline, among others – are based on evaluations of summer programs in six urban districts selected for a multi-year demonstration project funded by The Wallace Foundation.

Key Coverage

At Retooled Summer Schools, Creativity, Not Just Catch-Up

Just a few years ago, school districts around the country were slashing summer classes as the economic downturn eviscerated their budgets. Now, despite continuing budgetary challenges, districts are re-envisioning summer school as something more than a compulsory exercise where students who need to make up lost credits fight to stay awake inside humid classrooms.

Key Coverage

Summer School: Should More Kids Go?

For years, Jennifer Dresmich, a middle school teacher in Pittsburgh, saw students come back from summer vacation further behind than when they left. Lessons from the prior year seemed to have evaporated under the summer sun. Some students needed weeks, if not months, of review before they were ready to settle into their new grade.


School’s (Still) In: Making the Most of Summer Learning
1 hour

While students are celebrating the start of the long summer break, there’s a significant tradeoff for the three months of leisure – on average, students will return to school in the fall a month behind where they performed in the spring. And the learning loss is even greater for low-income students who were already behind their more affluent peers. In this EWA Webinar, we examine how districts are successfully combating summer learning loss with high-quality programs and leveraging community partnerships to help pay for them.

Key Coverage

After Summer, Teachers Spend a Month Reteaching Students

Two-thirds of teachers polled in a recent survey said they spend at least a month reteaching students old material when they return from summer vacation.

The survey, administered by the National Summer Learning Association, asked 500 teachers how much time they typically spend teaching students skills they should have learned and retained from the previous grade. Nearly a fourth (24 percent) said at least five to six weeks, while two-thirds claimed at least three to four.

Key Coverage

First Comprehensive Research on Summer Slide Released

Students can return to school in the fall at least a month behind, on average, where they were in the spring, but high-quality summer programs can help combat this summer learning loss, finds a report released today by the RAND Corp.

“Making Summer Count: How Summer Programs Can Boost Children’s Learning” is the first comprehensive evaluation of past studies and new research on summer learning loss and summer programs for K-8 students.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Making the Most of Summer Learning Stories

While students are celebrating the start of the long summer break, there’s a significant tradeoff for the three months of leisure – on average, students will return to school in the fall a month behind where they performed in the spring. And the learning loss is even greater for low-income students who were already behind their more affluent peers.


STEM Stepping-Stones: Covering College Prep in the Summer
1 hour

What steps are under way to help incoming college freshmen prepare for their first semester of classes, particularly those in the STEM disciplines? Students planning to major in science, technology, engineering and math often make early exits from those fields, but switching a college major can be costly for the student and may even lead to dropping out altogether. From summer bridge programs that refresh rising freshmen on key concepts to learning communities that pair students and mentors, programs are emerging to help high school graduates enter college STEM courses prepared.


Summer Matters: How Summer Learning Strengthens Students’ Success

Unequal access to summer learning and enrichment opportunities is a significant factor in the achievement gap between low-income students and their higher-income peers. This study describes how summer learning programs that provide high quality, engaging enrichment activities are a promising solution to this challenge and can help to narrow our unacceptable achievement gap. 


Summer Idyll — or Idle? Story Ideas for Journalists
58 Minutes

All over the country, the year’s last school bell is ringing. But now that it’s time for pool parties and summer camp, what happens to the knowledge students gained during the school year?

Gary Huggins of National Summer Learning Association; Kathleen Manzo of Education Week; and Katy Murphy of the Oakland Tribune talk about how reporters can examine summer learning loss and how to tell when schools and communities offer effective summer school.

Key Coverage

The Summer Learning Slide

Summer is officially here, and along with it, something known as the “summer slide.” Kids can lose months’ of skills they learned during the school year — especially low-income kids.

But as Marketplace’s Amy Scott reports from the Education Desk at WYPR, more districts are cutting back on summer learning programs.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Does More Time In School Mean More Learning?*

Most of the first 12 states granted waivers from some of the tougher provisions of No Child Left Behind have provided few details on how they plan to satisfy a key obligation of the deal: extending learning time for students at the lowest-achieving schools.

In exchange for being released from some of the law’s requirements, the states had to agree to use student testing data as a factor in evaluating teacher job performance, and to focus their efforts on reforming the lowest-performing campuses. Adding more instructional time was also a requirement.

Key Coverage

Summer Learning Program Seeks To Close Opportunity Gap

For many Washington area kids, summer is a footloose season marked by family trips and shuttling from camp to camp. But for poor children, the hot months are often filled with empty time that stultifies learning.

The opportunity gap has widened this year as some cash-strapped local agencies have eliminated thousands of summer school slots, leaving needy students with fewer ways to keep pace with their more affluent peers.