Learning from Summer: Effects of Voluntary Summer Learning Programs on Low-Income Urban Youth

Big Thought and Dallas ISD, along with four other urban public-private partnerships, participated in a multi-year research study funded by the Wallace Foundation to develop and implement summer learning programs to help close the opportunity gap. This initiative, referred to as the National Summer Learning Project (NSLP), lead to a series of comprehensive reports and strategy tools that are helping communities throughout the country increase the access, dosage and quality of their summer learning opportunities.

The largest-ever study of summer learning finds that students with high attendance in free, five to six-week, voluntary summer learning programs experienced educationally meaningful benefits in math and reading.

The findings are important because children from low-income families lose ground in learning over the summer compared to their more affluent peers. Voluntary, district-run summer programs could help shrink this gap and have the potential to reach more students than traditional summer school or smaller-scale programs run by outside organizations. Yet until now little has been known about the impact of these programs and how they can succeed. Wallace’s $50 million National Summer Learning Project seeks to help provide answers.

Since 2011, five urban school districts and their partners, the RAND Corporation and Wallace have been working together to find out whether and how voluntary-attendance summer learning programs combining academics and enrichment can help students succeed in school.

Starting in 2013, RAND conducted a randomized controlled trial (RCT) in five districts—Boston; Dallas; Duval County, Florida; Pittsburgh; and Rochester—to evaluate educational outcomes, focusing on children who were in 3rd grade in spring of that year. The 5,600 students who applied to summer programs were randomly assigned to one of two groups—those selected to take part in the programs for two summers (the treatment group) and those not selected (the control group). The study analyzed outcomes for 3,192 students offered access to the programs.

Researchers found that those who attended a five-to-six-week summer program for 20 or more days in 2013 did better on state math tests than similar students in the control group. This advantage was statistically significant and lasted through the following school year. The results are even more striking for high attenders in 2014: They outperformed control group students in both math and English Language Arts (ELA), on fall tests and later, in the spring. The advantage after the second summer was equivalent to 20-25 percent of a year’s learning in math and ELA.

These findings are correlational but controlled for prior achievement and demographics, giving researchers confidence that the benefits are likely due to the programs and meeting the requirements for promising evidence under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Key Points of Interest

  1. The academic advantage for students with 20 or more days of attendance in a five-to-six-week voluntary summer program after the second summer translated to between 20 and 25 percent of typical annual gains in math and reading.
  2. High attendance in voluntary summer programs isn’t the only factor in student outcomes. Students who received at least 25 hours of math or 34 hours of English Language Arts instruction did better than control group students on tests in fall 2013 and fall 2014.
  3. RAND advises districts running voluntary summer programs to use historical data on no-show and attendance rates when deciding matters like how many teachers to hire and how much space is needed. If they don’t keep such records, they can refer to RAND’s findings—a 20-to-30-percent no-show rate and a 75-percent attendance rate—as a guide.


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