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What Makes Summer Programs Work for Middle Schoolers?

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We know that summer learning can increase student achievement. But when it comes to middle school students, the question is: How can we continuously improve our approach to such programs and produce the greatest return on investment for children, families, and schools?

Three years ago, the nonprofit organization that I head, BELL, or Building Educated Leaders for Life, was given the opportunity to find answers to this question through a Social Innovation Fund grant from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and the Corporation for National and Community Service. For our investigation, we conducted a randomized controlled trial to better understand how and why summer learning yields positive student outcomes.

Our study was particularly important, we knew, because little evidence exists about effective learning models for middle school students. MDRC, the research firm responsible for conducting the evaluation, designed the research to learn more about how summer learning programs can improve the academic achievement of middle school students, and to better understand the context in which summer programs are implemented.

The findings were informative. First, they showed that the impact of summer learning may be greater on students’ math achievement than on reading achievement. Data also showed, moreover, that it is possible to deliver high-quality programming that middle school students will voluntarily attend at a high rate.

“The summer is a great opportunity to cultivate a can-do mind-set, as teachers have more time, space, and flexibility to support the individual needs of their students.”

We plugged findings from the study into our continuous-assessment process, along with data collected annually from pre- and post-program formative assessments, teacher and parent surveys, attendance records, and high-quality metrics. Since beginning our trial in 2012, we have focused on enhancing three core program elements closely tied to strong student outcomes: staff training, curriculum, and assessment.

When it comes to training, we have learned to build on the existing skills and priorities of teachers and school leaders by taking the time necessary to tailor and adapt content. We also have created a new instructional-coach role, identifying outstanding local teachers who can share best practices and serve as mentors to their younger peers. By shifting to this “train the trainer” model, we have increased the alignment between summer programs and school culture and priorities, while also creating leadership and professional development opportunities for teachers.

We transitioned to common-core-aligned reading and math curricula, which incorporate more nonfiction texts in reading and algebraic reasoning in math. While it is tough to measure the impact of contextual factors, creating extra time and space in the summer for teachers to plan, collaborate, and experiment has yielded benefits in terms of increased comfort and familiarity with the common-core standards and assessments, leading to increased quality of instruction. Another advantage to the new curricula is that instruction is fully consumable: Students can bring books and other materials home at the end of the program to read and share with siblings and friends. The change to consumable curriculum has reduced costs, eliminating the need to manage, transport, and store program materials and supplies.

In the study we also learned more about—and made improvements to—the summer assessment process, so that teachers and learners are in a position to succeed. We began using computer-adaptive assessments aligned with common-core standards to help teachers use time more strategically to teach the skills students need most. These assessments can be administered quickly and easily by deploying iPads and laptops, minimizing the time required for assessment, and improving the quality of insight into students’ learning needs. This transition has required strong relationships, in order to utilize schools’ computer labs in the summer and employ mobile solutions to connect schools that lack appropriate technology.

Our experience in investigating summer learning for middle school students has sharpened our sense of what else we need to learn. The study was conducted at schools implementing BELL’s model for the first time; now we need to learn more about the impact of well-established programs. We need evidence from large-scale studies that can yield stronger conclusions. And we have more to learn about how to measure student outcomes, because academic achievement is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to raising smart, healthy, confident, and determined students.

We’ve increased our focus on social and emotional learning, in addition to our efforts to build core reading and math skills. A big part of this is fostering a “growth mind-set” that helps students learn that, despite any challenges, they can improve, overcome adversity, and take ownership of their success. That requires an emotional buy-in from middle school students as a precondition for academic progress. So, setting a positive tone and culture from Day 1 is a must. The summer is such a great opportunity to cultivate a can-do mind-set, as teachers have more time, space, and flexibility to support the individual needs of their students.

We encourage schools, community organizations, donors, and partners to continue exploring these questions to gain a deeper understanding of how and why summer learning boosts student achievement. Every question and every answer will help us better meet the learning needs of adolescents.

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