At first the conclusion seems almost too obvious to state: Voluntary summer learning programs benefit low-income youth in both math and reading…if children attend.
But unpack it a bit further and you begin to see both the groundbreaking nature of the research leading to this conclusion, as well as the real barriers that often keep young people, particularly those in under-resourced areas, from attending summer programs.
Research on summer programs has largely been confined to mandatory "summer school" or voluntary opportunities that many families are not able to afford. But what might happen if children elected to attend summer programs run by the school district, so educators could ensure a level of quality and continuity with the school year? Would this make an impact for kids?
We created the National Summer Learning Project to help answer these questions. As part of the project, we commissioned the RAND Corporation to study five districts with large-scale voluntary summer learning programs to help them improve their programs and then survey the impact on participating students. RAND published its cumulative findings in a 2016 publication: Learning from Summer: Effects of Voluntary Summer Learning Programs on Low-Income Urban Youth. The big eye-opener was that kids who attended the five-to-six week programs for 20 or more days benefitted in both reading and math.
Other key findings thus far include:
- Early planning is key: According to RAND schools need to begin the planning process by January at the latest.
- High-quality instruction matters: Ideally, teachers should have subject matter and grade-level experience to make connections between the summer and what students are learning throughout the year.
- Attendance must be nurtured and tracked: It’s important that kids feel welcome in the program so they’ll attend, and we now know how essential high attendance is to success.
Future publications from the project will include an operational guide, hand-on tool kits and resources, as well as an online recruitment guide. All research and tools link back to the primary conclusion: Good results are possible if you can get children in the door and keep them there.