Commit Now to Get Summer Programming Right


Apr 15, 2021

Elementary schoolchildren wearing face masks in a classroom, photo by kevajefimija/Getty Images

Photo by kevajefimija/Getty Images

To paraphrase a recent news article, summer school is hot. Backed by new federal funding to address learning loss and by CDC research that schools can safely reopen before all teachers are vaccinated, many school districts are considering in-person school this summer to help students recover from COVID-19 learning losses as well as to gear up for the 2021–2022 school year.

RAND research affirms that summer programs, when targeted to needs, intentionally designed, and well-attended, produce positive outcomes for children in math and reading. But they come with a level of cost that necessitates federal support, and require early planning to make summer programs worthwhile.

Our estimates based on five urban school districts' summer programs show that it would cost about $1,400 per attendee to host a five-week, six-hours-per-day summer program that includes small classes of 15 or fewer students taught by certified teachers. The cost estimate includes daily academics, meals, transportation, and enrichment activities such as art or drama.

Planning is the precondition for a quality summer program. And there is a prodigious amount of pre-work required, as a summer program is the equivalent of a mini school year. When busses are on time, teachers are trained, materials are ready, and schedules are maintained, teachers can use instructional time well and students can better engage and learn.

Getting the logistics of summer programs right matters, because it makes the difference between using or losing precious instructional minutes. In the first years of the five-city, multi-year research evaluation, we found that programs lost as much as one full week's worth of instructional time due to snafus like missing instructional materials, late buses, ill-timed professional development of teachers, frequent interruptions of classes, and summer classes that routinely started later or ended earlier than scheduled. Districts that began planning earlier and more intensively saw teachers increase instructional time, which correlated to improved student achievement.

School districts that plan to offer programs this summer should consider the following.

Summer programs, when targeted to needs, intentionally designed, and well-attended, produce positive outcomes for children in math and reading.

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Start planning and staffing early. Successful programs are best planned in advance. Districts should dedicate at least one person to start planning the program ideally by January, but at least well before April. Planning could focus on identifying the students most in need, and then recruiting staff, including counselors and teachers with relevant grade and subject-matter expertise. Teachers who are deeply knowledgeable about the age and grade-level standards they are teaching can hit the ground running and teach with a sense of urgency that is often lacking in the summer.

Don't expect teachers to write their own lessons. Select a preexisting curriculum developed for summer or have district curriculum coordinators create them. The curriculum should be targeted to the knowledge and skills the students are most lacking. Districts that expected or allowed teachers to write their own lessons led to lower-quality or even no lessons and last-minute work.

To reap benefits, offer a program of at least five weeks. These programs need to be of sufficient duration. Significant benefits accrued to students after 20 days of attendance of programs with two hours of reading and between one and two hours of mathematics instruction each day. RAND research shows that summer programs that last at least five weeks (preferably six weeks, because attendance will likely not be perfect) are most successful. Further, based on research findings, students might best be taught in small groups of 15 or fewer, which would support physical distancing as well as quality instruction.

The stakes are high for students, making it worth the considerable effort of getting summer programs off the ground. But districts need to commit early to do it right. Without a concerted and ongoing investment into additional programming and instructional time, the most disadvantaged students may be living with the impacts of COVID-19 long after the pandemic is over.

Heather Schwartz is the program director of PK–12 Educational Systems at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Catherine Augustine is a senior policy researcher at RAND and the director of RAND's Pittsburgh office. Jennifer McCombs is a senior policy researcher and director of the Behavioral and Policy Science Department at RAND.

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