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Student Achievement Opinion

Effective Summer Learning: ‘We Already Know How to Do This’

Summer programs are essential to educational equity
By Chris Smith & Paul Reville — May 02, 2023 3 min read
conceptual illustration of 2 figures atop unequal boxes of summer experiences
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The road to pandemic recovery and equity extends through summer, when programs draw on young people’s interests and utilize the entire community for learning. Our experience in Boston and Massachusetts points the way to engaging programs and adequate funding for both school and community providers.

A summer program connected us 30 years ago, when Chris participated in a high school leadership program that Paul had created a decade earlier. Paul went on to chair our state’s influential Commission on Time and Learning and serve as Massachusetts secretary of education. Chris has led a Boston coalition that reimagined summer learning, creating a national model for cities. Throughout these experiences, each of us was driven by a conviction that enrichment time was central to the quest for equity in education.

Policy leaders now have an exceptional opportunity to make summer learning available to all children, not just those wealthy enough to afford it. The social, emotional, and motivational challenges facing students are now painfully obvious and generating a sense of urgency. At the same time, the federal government has made extraordinary resources available to help students recover from the pandemic. The window for change is open.

Scholars have exhaustively established the need for summer learning. It is well known but worth repeating: During their K-12 years, children actually spend more than 80 percent of their waking hours outside of school. Privileged children have access to all sorts of learning and enrichment opportunities outside of school, while less economically fortunate children have few options. This inequity means that some students surge forward while others fall back. This is intolerable. If we are committed to closing persistent learning gaps, we must equalize access to opportunities in the time spent outside of school, beginning with summer.

Cities across the country are proving that we already know how to do this. In Boston, the 5th Quarter of Learning, a public-private summer learning partnership between Boston After School & Beyond and the Boston public schools, has established a model for mobilizing a network of programs, many offered by community-based nonprofits experienced in how to motivate youth.

Our experience centers students’ interests and uses the city as a classroom by harnessing the talent, expertise, and resources of people and institutions across our community. As students find hands-on opportunities to learn through activities like boxing, acting, sailing, STEM, or debating, there’s something for everyone and a motivating reason for kids to show up.

Programs adopt the same performance measures so that we can understand their relative strengths and areas for improvement. By embedding academics and skill building in enrichment activities, we provide students with the inspiration they need to become more engaged, curious, and confident.

The academic advantage after two summers is estimated at 25 percent annual gains in reading.

A RAND Corp. national longitudinal study of district-led summer learning in Boston and four other major urban districts reveals that high-attending students in a five-week program outperformed their peers in math, language arts, and other key skills. The academic advantage after two summers is estimated at 25 percent annual gains in reading. At an average cost of just over $10 per student per hour, this is an enormous return on investment.

As we emerge from the pandemic, policy leaders should build on this foundation, using Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund money and other resources, to expand their capacity to serve students. Our experience in Boston offers three lessons for doing so.

First, think about motivation and reach beyond the boundaries of school. Learning can happen anywhere. Start with student interest and cultivating motivation. Tapping nonprofits and real-world settings enables hands-on learning and enrichment, engaging youth in their own development.

Focus on cross-cutting skills. College admissions and human resource officers are looking for the same skills: critical thinking, teamwork, and perseverance. Summer programs are fertile ground for developing these skills.

Finally, while cultivating a diverse network of programs to match the needs and interests of young people, insist upon measuring quality. Local institutions like museums and colleges can be important partners, while a coordinating entity can oversee program quality and drive improvement.

Time is of the essence. We must act quickly to turn the current learning crisis exacerbated by the pandemic into a new opportunity. Let’s stop overrelying on overburdened schools and instead bring the community to the table to create a new educational compact: a guarantee that all students have access to essential, high-quality summer learning and enrichment.


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