Summer learning loss affects all children, but low-income students, who don’t have the same access to enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers, tend to fall further behind during these months, widening the already yawning achievement gaps. Voluntary summer learning programs are one way to combat this slide.
A new study from the Wallace Foundation and RAND Corporation takes a look at five such programs in different urban school districts around the U.S. (Boston, MA; Rochester, NY; Pittsburg, PA; Dallas, TX; and Duval County, FL) and determines what factors were most likely to produce successful results. While the district’s programs may have varied in their approaches, there were several consistent factors among them. All were full-day, five-day-a-week, free-of-charge voluntary programs that lasted a minimum of five weeks. They all also provided three hours of academic instruction a day from certified teachers in small classes no larger than fifteen students. They even offered free transportation and meals, along with various enrichment activities such as art, music, and sports.
The study included 5,637 rising fourth graders, 3,192 of whom were randomly selected to partake in the programs for two consecutive summers (the treatment group), while the rest, who were not selected, were assigned to the control group. When the researchers compared the academic achievement of the control group to that of the entire treatment group, the results were modest because not all kids attended the summer programs regularly. However, when they compared the control group to subsets of the treatment group, such as those who attended for at least twenty days, the results were more significant (more on that below). The researchers also accounted for student characteristics and prior academic performance in both analyses to ensure any positive academic improvements were a result of participating in the summer program and not selection bias. Ultimately, the primary finding was that kids who attended more frequently benefitted more from the programs. Important, if not all that surprising.
In the first year, 2013, about 80 percent of students in the treatment group attended the summer program. Only about half showed up the next year, as some students left the district before the summer or dropped out for other unspecified reasons. Half of all the students who showed up in 2013 were “high attenders,” meaning they attended for at least twenty days, and these students saw the most significant benefits in math. When they entered fourth grade in the fall of 2013, their advantage over the students in the control group was about 25 percent of the average annual learning gain for math. By spring of 2014, they still had about a 13 percent advantage of a student’s average annual gain. Those high attenders who came back for the second summer saw even greater gains in both math and language arts, enjoying an advantage between 14 and 21 percent of the usual annual gains in mathematics, and between 17 and 25 percent in English language arts.
Another factor that positively affected student achievement was “academic time on task.” Treatment group students, who received at least 25.5 hours of math and reading instruction (“high academic time”), experienced greater typical annual gains than the control group: 15–21 percent more in math and 13–33 percent in reading.
The study also includes recommendations for summer learning program leaders to maximize the benefits. Analysts suggest that programs run for a minimum of five weeks and focus on instructional quality. They also offer tips on how to maximize attendance rates up and minimize costs. For the former, they suggest offering programs to various age levels so some students won’t have to stay home to take care of younger siblings, and making sure that program activities excite and engage students. To minimize costs, they recommend using the study’s findings to predict likely attendance rates and adjust resources, such as space and teachers needed, to meet those rates.
While the findings of this study may not be surprising, they are certainly valuable in helping to close the summer learning gap between low-income students and their peers. Hopefully this study and its recommendations will encourage more urban districts to improve and expand such programs for disadvantaged pupils.
SOURCE: Catherine H. Augustine et al., “Learning from Summer: Effects of Voluntary Summer Learning Programs on Low-Income Urban Youth,” RAND Corporation (September 2016).