Student Achievement What the Research Says

How to Get Summer School Right (Hint: It’s Not Just About Academics)

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 11, 2024 6 min read
Teacher Monica Villegas, an exchange teacher from Mexico, instructs students at the Twin Falls School District's migrant summer school at Oregon Trail Elementary School in Twin Falls, Idaho, on June 1, 2016. A migrant summer school helps fill education gaps while keeping children out of farm fields.
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When well done, summer programs can give students extra time to catch up on foundational skills and prepare for the next school year. But at a time of historically high chronic absenteeism during the school year, getting them to attend can be a struggle.

A new evaluation of Summer Boost, a summer learning recovery program used in eight cities nationwide, suggests giving equal weight to enrichment activities—from art projects to field trips—may improve student motivation to participate in summer programs and the benefits they get out of them.

“The enrichment piece of this was a very key part of it, such that I think it was a good balance between not necessarily remediating deficiencies, so to speak, but trying to really accelerate students’ learning,” said Geoffrey Borman, an education professor at Arizona State University, who conducted the evaluation. “That seemed to be borne out in results where we saw acceleration of student learning rather than just filling in the gaps.”

Borman tracked how much 35,000 participating and 160,000 demographically and academically similar students who did not participate in Boost students grew from the start of the summer program to the end, using the share who reached proficiency in the i-Ready and MAP-Growth, two commonly used benchmarking assessments in reading and math.

In a working paper released Tuesday, Borman found students who participated in the summer program gained, on average, four to five weeks more learning in math and three to four weeks more in English/language arts than students who did not participate. That worked out to closing more than 30 percent of the pandemic-related learning gap in math and more than 20 percent of the gap in reading in the grades 1-9.

“Our kids lost so much time and there’s an amazing opportunity over summer to give it back to them,” said Emily Morton, a researcher at the Center on Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research, who studies summer programs but was not part of the Summer Boost study. “Sometimes there can be this message that you don’t want to take this free time away in summer,” Morton said. “But we should be thinking about it as an opportunity to give [students] something; giving them more school is giving them this opportunity to make up something that was taken from them.”

Morton said Borman’s results were promising, though she cautioned that tracking student proficiency levels may obscure the effect of the summer program on the lowest-performing students.

The Summer Boost effects were significantly larger than those found in a separate CALDER Center analysis of 400,000 students attending summer programs in eight districts in 2022. CALDER researchers including Morton found in that study that summer programs closed about 2-3 percent of the learning gap in math, and none at all in reading. The schools Morton studied provided on average 14-18 hours of academic instruction, compared to the minimum of 20 hours for the Summer Boost schools, and Morton said greater instructional time can improve the effectiveness of summer learning.

“It’s been a really tremendous impact on our young people,” said Eve Colavito, co-chief executive officer of the DREAM charter schools in New York City, which is starting its third year participating in Summer Boost. “For students who are on grade level, it keeps them there and ensures they don’t lose anything. And for students who are below grade level, we’ve actually seen students accelerate during the summer and be able to gain some of that lost ground.”

Summer programs have expanded in recent years, in part because the Biden administration highlighted them as an option to help students recover academically from school disruptions during the pandemic. About 8 in 10 school districts have spent federal COVID relief money on after-school or summer learning, according to the National Summer Learning Association.

Summer Boost was created in 2022, with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies and other nonprofits, to provide summer academic programs for students entering grades 1-9. As of 2023, the summer studied in Borman’s evaluation, it served more than 35,000 students at nearly 450 schools that received grants from Bloomberg in six states and Washington, D.C. Three-quarters of the participating students came from low-income families, and more than a quarter of whom were English learners.

The instruction also had to include English/language arts and math for 90 minutes each per day in classes of no more than 25 students per teacher. However, schools were not required to admit only students who performed below grade level, and they typically allowed any student to attend.

Schedules varied widely; some programs interspersed academic classes with arts, sports, or other activities, while others focused the start of the week on academics and provided a field trip at the end of each week.

Colavito said the charter network has used the Summer Boost as an extension of its school year, with 80 percent of the schools’ students also attending the summer program. This year DREAM plans to expand the program to serve 1,500 students in three elementary and three middle schools.

The school hires its school-year teachers for Summer Boost and aligns the summer math and reading instruction to its regular school year curriculum.

“When students hit the ground [at] the end of August when they start school, they’ve already gotten a primer in the summer for what’s coming up,” Colavito said.

Borman found schools that spend 90 minutes daily on enrichment, in addition to the 90 minutes each on reading and math instruction, showed the strongest growth for students. Students across racial and socio-economic groups benefited, and English learners showed particular growth.

That may be, in part, because students actually showed up.

Prior research by the National Summer Learning Project found participating students’ average attendance is 20 percentage points lower for summer school than class days during the regular school year.

To receive full grant funding of $2,000 per student, Summer Boost schools had to provide at least 20 days of instruction during the summer, with students attending at least 70 percent of the time, and Borman found the 60 percent of students who attended 80 percent or more of instructional days showed the most academic growth. (Schools with lower attendance could qualify for partial funding.)

Design programs that respond to families’ needs

Sunny Larson, the K-12 program director for Bloomberg Philanthropies, said school leaders should take parent needs—including transportation, timing, and meals—into account when designing and implementing summer programs. For example, many schools offered both half- and full-day summer schedules.

“All of us with children know that having your kid go to something for two hours is just like, why even bother? That doesn’t help you in your life for child care or for planning,” she said.

Similarly, some New York City programs provided subway travel vouchers, both for the student and an adult, to ensure families could get younger students to the program safely. Most provided meals or snacks, using either program funds or federal summer meal support for students who qualified.

“Far too often folks have not considered [summer school] or not considered it in a comprehensive way,” Larson said. “Summer school has been thought of as a punitive thing, and all about remediation.

“For us, getting kids in the classroom meant, yeah, you want to have strong academics,” she said. “But also, what are the things that are going to make it exciting and fun to get kids to attend on a regular basis, to get teachers to want to participate, to sort of have an ethos of summer learning that leads to a great experience for everybody?”

Colavito said she believes ensuring continuity from the school year to the summer program has also been critical to summer engagement. “We’ve seen an incredible benefit from kids having consistent relationships in the summer with the people that taught them during the school year,” she said. “In many ways, we think attendance is connected to showing up for the people that you know and love.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 17, 2024 edition of Education Week as How to Get Summer School Right (Hint: It’s Not Just About Academics)

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