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Summer Learning Programs Can Help Reverse Losses in Academic Progress

Recent research suggests that high-quality programs can have sizable positive effects on student achievement, particularly in math.

By Autumn Rivera  |  January 3, 2024

Many school districts saw drops in fourth and eighth grade math scores on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the achievement test also known as the Nation’s Report Card. To help combat that loss, districts have focused on providing additional opportunities to learn during the summer.

Planning for these programs is well underway. Considerations from staffing to strategic vision carry significant weight in influencing the success and sustainability of these efforts, and program providers must proactively secure advance funding sources. Because of the time-sensitive nature of these preparations, the early planning phase is pivotal in shaping the trajectory of high-quality summer programs, ensuring continued effectiveness in combating learning loss and providing a comprehensive educational experience.

Because most states end their fiscal years on June 30, programs often straddle fiscal years. Being able to use funds across fiscal years and giving programs notice of and access to funds as early as possible are key for policymakers looking to support high-quality summer programs.

What do summer learning programs consist of?

Typical summer learning programs offer a variety of activities and experiences, ranging from academic coursework to creative projects, cultural enrichment and recreation.

Traditional summer school gave intensive instruction to students needing to catch up on failed classes. High-quality summer learning programs, however, combine academics and enrichment activities. Increasingly, researchers, educators, families and policymakers recognize that these programs effectively combat summer learning loss in an enjoyable and engaging manner.

What does research suggest about summer learning and learning loss?

Recent research has explored how summer learning programs have helped since the COVID-19 pandemic began. A new paper from CALDER at the American Institute for Research examined the academic progress of students who attended summer school. Researchers tracked more than 16,000 students across seven school districts in 10 states who attended school learning programs during summer 2022. They then compared these students with similar students who did not attend summer school.

Summer programs varied by school district, but typically ran between 15 and 20 days, with up to two hours of academic instruction each day. Most programs were open to all students but targeted those with greater needs. Summer programs were open mainly to students in elementary and middle grades, but some included high school.

Key takeaways:

  • Post-pandemic interventions have led to encouraging findings.
  • Summer programs had sizable positive effects on students’ math achievement (researchers estimate as much as 3%) but not in reading.
  • Post-COVID summer programs are having similar impacts to pre-COVID summer programs. Post-COVID summer programs are also targeting students with greater need.
  • Between 5% and 20% of students participated in summer programs, depending on the district, meaning there were more eligible students who could have received interventions.

What makes for a successful summer learning program?

A session at NCSL’s Legislative Summit in August covered the ways students are still struggling emotionally and academically in the wake of the pandemic. States have turned to policies to promote school-community partnerships to improve student learning and well-being. Aaron Dworkin, chief executive officer at the National Summer Learning Association, or NSLA, told Summit attendees about using summer learning to expand opportunities for all children. He spoke about the difference between summer school and summer learning, the importance of creating a community, summer learning and COVID learning loss, and what high-quality summer learning programs look like.

Dworkin cited the Rand Corp. report “Investing in Successful Summer Programs” when describing what NSLA believes creates successful summer learning program:

  • Program length and dosage (participation, attendance and instructional hours received) matter.
  • Programs should be school-aligned but do not have to be school-based.
  • Programs should have a mix of academics, enrichment and social-emotional learning.

Did states pass summer learning legislation in 2023?

In recent years, there has been an uptick in summer learning legislation, including funding allocation, program design and curriculum, access, data collection, community partnerships and collaboration, and teacher training and professional development.

Examples from 2023 include:

  • Oregon HB 3198 (enacted): Creates a new initiative for early literacy efforts, including funding for coaching, summer programs and tutoring.
  • Rhode Island HB 5520 (pending): Would provide funding for comprehensive and effective afterschool programming, school vacation, summer learning and workforce development programs for students in specified grades, and would require an annual report on program progress.
  • Vermont HB 300 (pending): Would establish the Afterschool and Summer Care Grant Program and Special Fund along with an advisory committee.

For more on summer learning, visit NCSL’s Summer Learning Programs

Autumn Rivera is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Education Program.

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