Student Achievement

Students Found to Make Gains in Summer Learning Programs—If They Show Up

By Marva Hinton — September 07, 2016 4 min read
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What does it take for a voluntary, school district-led summer learning program to be successful?

That’s the question RAND researchers have been trying to answer for the past five years through a study released today by the Wallace Foundation.

As it turns out, a large part of it is getting students to show up.

That’s the key finding in the report, “Learning from Summer: Effects of Voluntary Summer Learning Programs on Low-Income Urban Youth.”

Researchers found that students classified as high attenders, those who attended at least 20 days of a five-to-six-week summer program, saw benefits in reading and math.

The researchers compared these students to a control group of students who didn’t attend such a program. The high attenders showed greater learning gains on tests taken right after the program ended, and these benefits persisted at the end of the following school year.

“It’s really interesting that a five-week program could confer those benefits that would last throughout the school year and could, in theory, then be built upon in the next summer with the subsequent summer program and could help get at closing the achievement gap between low-income kids and their higher-income peers,” said Catherine Augustine, a senior policy researcher with RAND and the study’s primary investigator.

Through this study, RAND examined the five voluntary, district-led programs that make up Wallace’s National Summer Learning Project, an initiative that began in 2011 with the goal to expand students’ summer learning opportunities to determine if and how they could improve outcomes for low-income and low-achieving elementary school students. (The Wallace Foundation also helps support coverage of leadership, arts education, and extended learning in Education Week and These summer programs are located in five urban school districts: Boston, Dallas, Duval County (Fla.), Pittsburgh, and Rochester (N.Y.).

These districts agreed to participate in a randomized, controlled trial for two summers beginning in 2013. Each program also had to provide the following:

  • Voluntary, free, full-day programming combining academics and enrichment five days a week for at least five weeks
  • Three hours of instruction daily in math and language arts by certified teachers
  • Small classes with no more than 15 students per adult
  • Free transportation and meals.

The researchers analyzed data for 3,192 students accepted into the programs who had completed 3rd grade before the first summer of programming. Students who attended at least one day typically attended about 75 percent of the program days. But the high attenders outperformed the control group in math after the first summer, and the benefits persisted through the school year. These students saw even greater benefits after the second summer when they outperformed the control group in reading and math, both in the fall of 2014 and in the following spring. The researchers found that these students had an academic advantage that translated to between 20 percent and 25 percent of the typical annual gains in these subjects. They also controlled these results for prior achievement and demographics to ensure that the benefits are likely due to the programs.

An executive with the Jacksonville Public Education Fund said this information about the importance of regular attendance will change the way her organization does business. The nonprofit works in Jacksonville, Fla., which is in Duval County, to bring together research, people, and funding to improve after-school and summer learning programs. In light of this research, Pam Paul, the group’s executive vice president said her organization will have to reach out to school administrators, municipal leaders, and parents to get help to improve student attendance.

“The number one goal is to get these students to attend as regularly as possible and to figure out more strategies for getting them to attend regularly,” said Paul.

But she acknowledged that this won’t be easy.

“There is a culture around summer where families feel their children have worked hard all year and they want them to get a break and have some fun,” she said, “but when parents see these kinds of results, they would be more persuaded to commit to have their children attend regularly because we’re able to demonstrate if they do, their kids will achieve better.”

In Pittsburgh, administrators are tackling the attendance issue with special recognition for students who attend regularly. Through a partnership with the United Way’s Be There initiative, the district has attendance challenges and competitions during its Summer Dreamers program. Students who attend a certain number of days during special periods are eligible for rewards.

“We’ve found that gift cards and bikes get a lot of attention, but things like sitting at a special table in the cafeteria with a tablecloth and fancy sunglasses and being called a VIP a lot of the time means more to little kids than potentially winning a big grand prize,” said Christine Cray, the director of student services reforms for Pittsburgh Public Schools.

In addition to finding that strong attendance made a big difference in student outcomes, researchers also discovered that time spent actually working on academics was key.

“If they’re offering math, they should be offering an hour and a half a day of math and really protecting that time and not replacing it with a field trip or an assembly,” said Augustine, who said the same was true for every academic subject.

The researchers also found that for a program to be successful it needs to run for at least five to six weeks.

The longitudinal study will continue through the spring of 2017 when these students reach the end of the 7th grade.

Photo: Students work on a project through the Duval County summer learning program. (Credit Duval County Public Schools)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.