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Research Questions

  1. Do voluntary, district-run summer learning programs improve academic, behavioral, and social and emotional outcomes for low-income, urban youth in both the short and long terms?
  2. What components are likeliest to ensure successful summer learning programs?

Research shows that during summer, low-income and non-white students fall behind academically compared with their more-affluent and white peers. To understand whether and how district-led voluntary summer learning programs can improve outcomes for low-income students, The Wallace Foundation initiated the National Summer Learning Project in 2011 in five urban districts. The RAND Corporation's six-year study of the National Summer Learning Project culminates in this final report about districts' implementation of their summer learning programs. This second edition updates guidance first published in 2013 and is intended for district leaders and their partners across the country who are interested in launching or improving summer learning programs. Based on thousands of hours of observations, interviews, and surveys, it presents the best available guidance about how to establish and sustain effective programs. The most emphatic recommendation is to commit in the fall to a summer program, and start active planning by January with a program director who has at least half of his or her time devoted to the job.

Other recommended practices include recruiting teachers with content knowledge, scheduling the program to include at least 25 hours of math and 34 hours of language arts, adopting recruitment and attendance policies aimed at high attendance rates, using written curricula that align with school-year standards, keeping a high level of engagement between adults and students even during transitions and time outside of class, and designing the program to consider cost-saving measures.

Key Findings

Summer learning programs do have a positive effect

  • Students who received a minimum of 25 hours of mathematics instruction in a summer performed better on the subsequent state math test; those receiving 34 hours of language arts performed better on the subsequent state English language arts assessment.
  • Participants also displayed stronger social and emotional competencies.
  • However, several components are needed for successful summer programs.

Plan early and well

  • Commit in the fall to a summer program, and start active planning by January with a program director who has at least half of his or her time devoted to the job.
  • Plan for both enrichment activities and academics.

Recruit and hire the district's most highly effective teachers and train them

  • Select teachers for content knowledge and experience teaching the relevant grade levels of students.
  • Prior to the start of the summer program, professional development for summer teachers should include specific guidance on use of the summer curricula, minimizing loss of instructional minutes, and on checking for student understanding. It also should stress the point that academics contribute to, rather than detract from, summer fun.

Schedule the program to include at least 25 hours of math and 34 hours of language arts

  • Operate the program for five to six weeks with three to four hours of academics per day.
  • Provide time for transitions in the master schedule to avoid loss of instructional minutes.
  • Provide teachers with concrete strategies for maximizing instructional time.

Adopt student recruitment and attendance policies that aim for high attendance rates

  • Develop timely recruitment materials that accurately describe the summer program.
  • Establish a firm enrollment deadline and clear attendance policy.
  • Track rates of students who sign up but do not attend; also track daily attendance once the program starts.

Teachers should have high-quality curriculum materials and small class sizes

  • Engage experts to anchor the program in written curricula that align with school-year standards and student needs.
  • Encourage leaders to observe instruction of the curriculum and provide feedback.
  • Select a model for providing enrichment activities.
  • Ensure that enrichment instructors have strong content knowledge and train them in behavior management strategies.

Adopt intentional policies related to site climate, which drives student enjoyment and is correlated with attendance

  • Train all staff on the importance of positive adult engagement with students throughout the day — not only in classes.
  • Develop a clear, positive message about the summer site culture and ask staff to convey it consistently to students.
  • Ensure that site leaders observe instructional and noninstructional periods.

To sustain summer programs over time, consider cost-saving measures

  • Hire staff to achieve desired ratios based on projected daily attendance, not the initial number of enrollees.
  • Consider cost-efficiencies in the design of the program, but weigh them against potential impacts on program quality.

Research conducted by

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

This report is part of the RAND 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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