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Research Questions

  1. What summer programs serving K–12 students in the U.S. education system have been recently evaluated?
  2. What summer programs have yielded evidence that meets ESSA evidence standards?
  3. What are the characteristics of summer programs that meet ESSA evidence standards?

Research evidence suggests that summer breaks contribute to income-based achievement and opportunity gaps for children and youth. However, summertime can also be used to provide programs that support an array of goals for children and youth, including improved academic achievement, physical health, mental health, social and emotional well-being, the acquisition of skills, and the development of interests.

This report is intended to provide practitioners, policymakers, and funders current information about the effectiveness of summer programs designed for children and youth entering grades K–12. Policymakers increasingly expect that the creation of and investment in summer programs will be based on research evidence. Notably, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) directs schools and districts to adopt programs that are supported by research evidence if those programs are funded by specific federal streams.

Although summer programs can benefit children and youth who attend, not all programs result in improved outcomes. RAND researchers identified 43 summer programs with positive outcomes that met the top three tiers of ESSA's evidence standards. These programs were identified through an initial literature search of 3,671 citations and a full-text review of 1,360 documents and address academic learning, learning at home, social and emotional well-being, and employment and career outcomes. The authors summarize the evidence and provide detailed information on each of the 43 programs, focusing on the evidence linking summer programs with outcomes and classifying the programs according to the top three evidence tiers (strong, moderate, or promising evidence) consistent with ESSA and subsequent federal regulatory guidance.

Key Findings

  • A relatively small fraction of research on summer programming includes a rigorous examination of youth outcomes. There are clearly challenges to conducting rigorous outcomes research. First, randomized controlled trials are expensive. Second, identifying a comparable group of nonparticipants in the absence of randomization can be difficult, particularly when there is not a large administrative database (such as school data) to draw upon.
  • Most studied programs were academic learning programs offered in schools, focused on reading, and targeting elementary students. There were far fewer rigorous studies conducted for other types of programs or outcomes.
  • Summer programs can be an effective way to address students' needs. The majority of programs studied (about 75 percent) were effective in improving at least one outcome.
  • The authors identified 43 summer programs that met ESSA's top three tiers of evidence standards. Although few of these programs can be purchased "off the shelf," the components of these programs can be replicated.
  • Many types of summer programs were effective. The authors found evidence of the effectiveness of academic learning, learning at home, social and emotional well-being, and employment and career summer programs, and evidence of effective programs offered to all grade levels.
  • Programs did not tend to be effective in improving all measured outcomes. Although the rigorously studied programs showed high rates of effectiveness in terms of promoting at least one youth outcome, few programs met all measured goals.
  • Targeting program content to the needs of specific children and youth may improve program effectiveness.

Recommendations

  • Decisionmakers should consider summer a viable time to promote outcomes for children and youth. The authors encourage decisionmakers to consult the evidence in this report and create and invest in programs that are intentionally designed to meet specific needs, are of sufficient dosage, and can be well implemented.
  • The authors encourage practitioners and funders to consider all tiers of evidence when making program choices. Few summer programs identified met the strongest ESSA evidence standards, and practitioners will be highly constrained if they only look for such programs.
  • When selecting or developing summer programs, practitioners can use the information provided in the intervention summaries to assess whether a program might be a good fit for the children and youth they want to serve.
  • Researchers should provide more information about interventions and implementation in their articles and reports. The authors were unable to determine which implementation features were consistently associated with improved outcomes because of this lack of information. They encourage researchers to include this information in future evaluations, not only to support evidence reviews and meta-analyses but also to guide practitioners on implementation.
  • Researchers and funders may want to conduct rigorous evaluations on different types of programs other than academic programs focused on improving reading achievement. There is much less evidence on the efficacy of programs focused on mathematics, science, social and emotional well-being, or career preparation, and almost none focused on physical health — all outcomes that might be successfully addressed in the summer.

Table of Contents

  • Section One

    Evidence Review

    • Chapter One

      Introduction

    • Chapter Two

      Review Methods

    • Chapter Three

      Evidence-Based Summer Programs

    • Chapter Four

      Key Findings and Recommendations

  • Section Two

    Intervention Summaries

  • Appendix

    Technical Details

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by The Wallace Foundation and conducted by RAND Education and Labor.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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