Recognition of the importance of summer to the traditional school year is growing nationally, as more districts realize just how detrimental months away from school can be to students – especially those who are already struggling academically.
But how best to use the summertime to foster student learning and development remains undetermined, although more research has emerged on what works best.
Additionally, districts and communities are finding new ways to combine resources to keep summer programs sustainable so long-term impacts can be yielded, while battling to prove worth for the budget line expense.
What does the research say?
The research on “summer learning loss,” or the academic knowledge that students lose over the summer months, is not new, but it is a growing field.
While teachers have long complained about having to re-teaching material from the previous academic year to students at the start of the fall semester, studies show summer brain drain may require more significant interventions than providing a refresher class on math concepts.
One of the first well-regarded and highly publicized studies came out of the 1980s when Karl Alexander, a professor from Johns Hopkins University, followed a cohort of students from elementary school through high school. Alexander found that summer learning losses were disproportionately experienced by students tied to socio-economic status: each summer, low-income students fell further behind their more affluent peers in core academic subjects.
In fact, Alexander’s research determined that the losses over the summer accrued with each passing summer, and by the ninth grade, these losses could account for two-thirds of the achievement gap that exists between disadvantaged and more advantaged students.
Alexander concluded that disadvantaged students often lack access to the enriching learning experiences such as camps or visits to cultural institutions like museums their peers experience during the summer. These experiences can stimulate learning, foster vocabulary skills, and generally encourage student growth, but without them, these differences in opportunity contribute to widening the achievement gap.
Research on summer slide has expanded since Alexander’s research, showing that disadvantaged students lose substantially more reading knowledge over the summer months than their well-off peers. Additionally, while the learning loss is disproportionate, all students lose math knowledge in the summer months.
What summer learning programs can do
But while growing body of research proving the existence of summer slide exists, new research is emerging that shows some high-quality learning programs can help reduce it.
The Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corporation, for example, published a study in 2011 that found well-crafted summer programs that blend academics and enrichment could reduce the summer slide students experienced. Low-income students who attend high quality summer programs were found to have fewer learning losses than those who did not attend these programs.
Since the release of that study, RAND has continued to investigate what types of programs reduce slide more than others by following a group of five school districts that have provided free summer programs of five to six weeks (or more) for low-income elementary school students.
Funded by The Wallace Foundation, the ongoing study is determining what structure and components the programs should provide to have a greater impact on summer slide. Additionally, as more districts are shifting their offerings from remediation to more comprehensive, high quality programs, a number are running independent evaluations to determine how well they are addressing learning loss.
However, while research on summer loss and summer programs is growing, there is a limited amount of research that shows what the long-term impact of attending high quality summer programs can have on students over time, due to the more recent emergence of some of these types of initiatives.
What works best?
Still, there have been some conclusions drawn about what components that make some programs more effective than others.
More and more districts are shifting away from the traditional summer school programs of the past – ones that typically focused on credit-recovery for students who did not perform well in the previous school year. These programs have been found to have limited effectiveness on student academic growth and serve smaller percentages of students, summer learning advocates say.
The RAND research findings, and organizations working in the summer learning space, such as the National Summer Learning Association, recommend that programs maintain distinctness from traditional school year while still promoting academic learning for at least three to four hours a day.
The programs should provide additional resources too, such as hands-on enrichment, physical activities, and new experiences like field trips that students would not typically have access to during the academic year. Generally speaking, students should be engaged in all types of learning while also having fun, they say.
Additionally, many of the higher quality summer programs emerging — either district or community-based — are targeting students at critical junctures in K-12. These include the transition to middle or high school (called “bridge” programs) or before the start of kindergarten. Others are reaching out to older students who may need additional support for college or workforce preparation.
According to some districts and summer learning advocates, these newer programs also provide an opportunity for teachers to try out new methods of instruction — such as digital learning — or to delve more deeply into subjects than the constraints of the regular school calendar allows. Chicago Public Schools, for example, recently offered students the opportunity to earn digital badges for the summer skills/experiences learned in their programs.
However, the research is still limited on whether these programs can yield long-term gains for students, particularly for those who spend consecutive summers participating. Some programs, such as the Horizons National program, aim to keep the same students attending for consecutive summers given that results seem to be more substantial.
How do districts afford this?
Even with the growth of new and improved summer programs, though, the majority of teachers are still report spending significant amounts of time re-teaching material from the previous year.
The National Summer Learning Association reported in 2013 that two-thirds of teachers polled said they spent at least three to four weeks re-teaching old material; nearly a fourth said they spent five to six weeks.
Some of this “summer brain drain” could be tied to the limits in numbers of programs that can be offered or how many students can be served, due to financial constraints. Even though the research on summer slide exists (and is growing) paying for summer programs still seems to be a challenge for school districts and communities.
Many districts report that they do not have the capacity to serve the student demand, with waiting lists and lotteries for slots in the programs each summer. This demand is not only coming from low-income families, the districts say: All parents, particularly those with full time jobs, are looking for ways to engage their children in learning
Additionally, some districts are now being pushed to get more creative with resources than ever before. After the recession, federal stimulus funding helped districts support an expansion of their summer programming, but given the one-time nature of the funding, after several summers the money dried up and districts have had to find funds elsewhere to keep programs afloat.
A number have found a blend of resources, ranging from Title I dollars to community donations, are the only way to keep these programs sustainable, given that tight school budgets often mean a battle to prove the legitimacy of using funds for summer learning.
Additionally, others have found support from organizations including Wallace and The MacArthur Foundation, which have put significant dollars into funding local programs in recent years. And in 2012, for example, the Walmart Foundation gave roughly $20 million for summer initiatives, $4 million of which went to five school districts for their summer programs.
Other districts have tried to be creative not only with blending funding streams, but in how they provide programming, such working directly with community partners like the YMCA to provide enhanced offerings or taking advantage of free community resources like libraries and parks to expand activities.. Some partner directly with organizations like BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) or Summer Advantage USA to provide programs for free or reduced cost.
Many say the key to providing high quality summer programs in a local district is recognizing the importance of summer on K-12 as a whole, and that what a student does/does not experience over the summer will have a direct link to how that student performs during the school year.