Teacher and preschool students reading outside

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July 3, 2014

Ask Me Anything: Catherine Augustine on Summer Learning

Photo by Anatoliy Samara/Fotolia

Long summer breaks away from the classroom can take a toll on student knowledge and skills. Research shows that, on average, when students return in the fall, they've slipped a month behind where they were in the spring. This “summer slide” builds over the years and disproportionately affects low-income youth, widening the academic achievement gap between them and their higher-income peers.

High-quality summer learning programs can help by boosting student outcomes, especially for youth from low-income families who may not have access to structured summer programs, and struggling students who need extra time and attention to master various skills.

With summer now underway, RAND's Catherine Augustine, co-author of Making Summer Count, part of the most comprehensive summer learning research to date, hosted an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit. Augustine answered questions about year-round schooling, how to get the most out of summer learning programs, and more. Here's a selection:

Why not just eliminate summer break altogether?

Augustine: Several districts have tried to implement year-round calendars but have pulled back due to funding constraints or protests by parents. In some states, entertainment industries (e.g., theme parks) lobby to maintain a minimum number of mandatory school days.

Research on year-round calendars has found mixed results. This may be because while more instructional time is important, how educators use that time is critical. If a school that's not successfully educating students simply tacks on additional time without changing anything else, it will probably remain unsuccessful.

Would year-round schooling be better for low-income students who likely rely on school lunch and breakfast for nutrition?

Augustine: I'd guess that it would, yes. We know from census data and survey research that lower-income children are less likely to engage in structured activities during the summer. Those activities have been linked to positive academic, social, and emotional outcomes. You're right about nutritional needs not necessarily being met while school is out. We also see summer weight gain among low-income children.

My colleagues and I run a teacher recruitment program. We're considering adding a summer enrichment program to give our inexperienced teachers a chance to instruct middle and high school students. Any advice?

Augustine: Using summer as an opportunity to train both new and experienced teachers is wise. In the elementary-level summer programs we study, teachers appreciate the opportunity to try new curriculum and approaches to instruction. I recommend at least three hours of training on each subject the teachers will teach, so they're familiar with the curriculum going in. I also recommend that you provide a highly scripted curriculum; teachers say they're less likely to put in extra time planning lessons during the summer.

Look out for more AMAs with RAND experts in the future.

— Pete Wilmoth