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How Reporters Can Evaluate Quality Summer Learning Programs

This year offers an opportunity for reporters to assess summer learning programs and consider whether expanded summer offerings are likely to be a permanent part of the education landscape or a post-pandemic blip. Get background and research on the current state of these programs and reporting tips to help write your next story.

Photo credit: Allison Shelley for EDUimages

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For decades, teachers, policymakers and parents have worried about summer slide, the possible loss of academic knowledge and skills during the 10-week vacation, and wondered whether a long break still makes sense. After COVID-19 closed schools for months, with Americans worrying about disrupted learning, many school districts decided summer is too precious for students to spend it at the local pool, in front of a video game console or hanging out at grandma’s.

What should districts offer, and how can they offer it? Part of the answer came in the federal American Rescue Plan Act. Passed in 2021, it provides roughly $123 billion for K-12 education. States and districts must use some of that money to try to counter disrupted learning by addressing students’ academic, social and emotional needs. In addition, the act sets aside $1.25 billion explicitly for summer learning.​​​​​

As the money became available, districts began rolling out programs. For many the start was rocky as schools rushed to put some kind of curriculum in place and struggled to attract teachers exhausted by the pandemic and eager for their summer hiatus. 

With programs entering their second or third year, though, 2023 offers an opportunity for education reporters to look at what’s happening in their districts, to try to assess whether summer learning programs were successful and to consider whether expanded summer offerings are likely to be a permanent part of the education landscape or a post-pandemic blip.

Here’s what journalists should know and look for as they cover summer learning in the next few months and beyond.

Identify Summer Programs That Go Beyond the ‘Back-to-School’ Approach 

The key in Aaron Dworkin’s view is the word learning. He’s the CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, which has been working on the issue for about 30 years. 

“Not everyone wants to go back to school in the summer. They want to be learning in the summer,” Dworkin says. And so the idea is “to create experiences for kids that are different from school. … “You take the best qualities of school and the best qualities of camp, and you have summer learning.”

Many districts have done that:

  • New York City, bolstered by federal money, retooled its traditional summer school program into Summer Rising,”which included ice cream, trips to park sprinklers and a bouncy house along with crafts and Double Dutch. Parents grabbed seats for their children as soon as they came available last year, prompting changes in the admissions procedures for this summer.
  • Seattle added after-lunch STEM activities to the standard summer school diet, giving students the chance to make model race cars from cardboard, straws tape and old CDs, and study sound by playing the kazoo.
  • Indianapolis Learning Labs program, which was in the works before the American Rescue Act money became available, expanded offerings for kids but emphasized improving the summer experience for teachers by providing professional development and paying them as much as $10,000 for summer work. This helped the district fill teaching slots, an issue many programs have struggled with.

Understand Summer Learning Programs Come in Different Forms  

Programs are “accelerating learning rather than just remediating kids,” says Catherine Augustine, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. At the same time, programs also are paying increasing attention to mental health in recognition of the stress and trauma created by the pandemic.

Summer learning takes many forms. Some programs are offered primarily or exclusively to students lagging in reading and math, sometimes as an alternative to repeating a grade. Others are open to all or geared toward academically high achieving students or those with a particular interest. They include varying amounts of academics, enrichment and fun. Sessions can be held in regular schools, at colleges or other local institutions, in parks or businesses.

For high school students, districts and their partners may offer internships or summer employment, as well as credit recovery programs for students who failed a course during the regular school year.  

Examine What Research Says About Summer Learning 

While it might seem obvious that summer programs would improve academic outcomes, research is less clear.  

“It looks like summer school should help, but the research is a mixed bag,” Jean Grossman, an economist at MDRC, a nonprofit research organization, and Princeton University, told The  Hechinger Report.

A 2020 RAND study of five urban summer programs found that elementary-school children who regularly attended out-performed similar students in math after one year and in math and reading after two years. Long-term effects were more difficult to discern. The study also found that, not surprisingly, students had to attend the program to benefit from it and that those who spent more time on academics over the summer were likely to fare better than those in shorter programs. Both the quality and quantity of instruction matters, the study found. Although many districts require students who are behind academically to attend summer school, studies question the value of this approach.

Investigate What Contributes to a Summer Learning Program’s Success and Challenges

Experts cite a number of factors that can indicate whether a summer program is likely to succeed.

Time is key with RAND recommending at least three hours a day of academics – usually 90 minutes each for reading and math – for at least five weeks. 

How a program’s schedule plays a role: 

  • Daylong programs not only give students more classroom time along with a chance to explore new activities and be with friends but also provide a full day of child care
  • Half-day programs are less likely to offer much beyond academics and pose a burden for parents who have to figure out how to be at the school at noon and what to do with their child for the rest of the day. Many will likely decide that morning of reading and math is simply not worth the trouble.

But all the time in the world is useless unless students are there. The RAND study, which was conducted before the pandemic, found 20% of kids given the opportunity for the summer program never attended, and among those who did, 40% missed five days or more. 

“Getting kids to attend in the summer is super challenging,” says Augustine. And the older students are, the more challenging it is.

To attract students, Augustine says, the program needs “to intentionally create a really warm and welcoming environment.” This can mean comparatively simple measures, such as teachers greeting students by name at the door, giving kids a high five and eating lunch with  them.

Programs may offer incentives for attendance, including treats – ice cream – if the entire group shows up for class. And, Augustine says, non-academic offerings can be a lure. One program saw attendance rise when it began offering water polo.

“If a kid doesn’t feel excited about going to a program, parents, even of a third or fourth grader, are not going to do battle” to get them there, says Christine Cray, director of student services reform for Pittsburgh Public Schools.

A Look at a Pittsburgh Out-of-School-Time Summer Program

Pittsburgh’s B.O.O.S.T. program provides 90 minutes of math, 90 minutes of reading and 30 minutes of social/emotional learning, including a community circle. But the academics are different than during the school year, with Legos in math class and novel study in language arts in which some students read “Wonder.” The afternoon features activities, such as arts, STEM, cooking and flag football in which high school football players come in to coach the younger kids.

Each of the program’s sites has its own theme. One is Camp Hollywood complete with a red carpet and a wall of fame. And B.O.O.S.T offers incentives, such as free breakfast, lunch and a snack, and tries to make the child’s attendance easier for parents by providing a full day of activities and giving preference to siblings and keeping them together.

Despite all that Cray concedes, “Attendance is a challenge. … Most students won’t be there every day. It’s a high ask during the summer.”

While staffing has been an issue in some districts, Cray says B.O.O.S.T. has been able to attract teachers by offering part-time hours and professional development and shorter hours for those who want it. “If a half-day schedule will get you really quality people, do it,” Cray says.

Reporting Tips for Evaluating Summer Learning Programs 

Beyond the program itself, the environment and the staff, The Wallace Foundation*, which has produced a “tool kit” for districts running summer programs, Augustine and others list several things that contribute to successful programs.

  • Planning: Districts need to start early: January at the latest, Augustine says. Pittsburgh has one person who spends all year preparing for the summer.
  • Curriculum: Even the longest summer program is not likely to last more than six weeks, so districts should provide teachers with well-organized materials and time to practice on how to use them.
  • Tutoring: Research shows individual tutoring can be effective, but it’s also expensive, says Augustine. Some summer programs try to incorporate some small-group instruction.

    So, she says, reporters should look at whether the program they’re covering includes tutoring, what that tutoring looks like and who is doing it. “If it’s not the certified district teacher,” she says, reporters might want to ask, “How much is that person paid? How do they know that person will be a good tutor?”
  • Who does it serve?: With affluent parents able to enroll their children in high-quality programs, summer can be “the most inequitable time in education. It has become very Darwinian,” says Dworkin. 

    So reporters, Augustine says, should ask what percentage of children in a program are from low-income families and whether that number has increased or decreased. “Summer learning is about equity, opportunity and community,” she says.
  • Partnerships: When writing about summer programs, look for ones, particularly for middle and high school students, run by groups other than the school district, either alone or in partnership.

    Some, Dworkin says, may bear little resemblance to conventional schools. These include programs run by the Outward Bound, New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program and Camp Fiver in rural New York, which offers two-week sessions to younger children and four weeks, including 60 hours of paid work, for 11th and 12th graders.

    Dworkin notes many medical schools and hospitals run summer enrichment programs for young people with an interest in medicine and health care.
  • Follow the money: Although federal funds remain available, some districts, such as those in Portland, Maine, and Detroit are retrenching this year because of state or local cuts in education spending.

    And so, as summer programs wind down in late July or early August, it’s not too early to begin looking into what the districts plan to do when the federal COVID-19 relief funding runs out in 2024.


 *Note: The Wallace Foundation is one of EWA’s sustaining funders.