Strategy overview

  • Structured and purposeful programming during the summer school break: Most high-quality summer learning programs provide a combination of academics and enrichment activities. Programs can vary significantly based on student age and program capacity. They are frequently administered centrally by municipal governments or other institutions, which rely on partnerships with school districts and community-based organizations who design and deliver programs. In some cases, school districts lead academic instruction and community-based groups provide enrichment activities.
  • Opportunities for additional academic support and sustained learning between academic years: Some programs may provide tailored support to students who do not meet school or district standards in math or reading, or may provide credit recovery opportunities for high school students. Many programs seek to prevent summer learning loss, wherein students regress academically if they go without any learning and enrichment activities during the summer break. In the years since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, programs also seek to address learning loss resulting from schools having transitioned to online environments. Programs also may focus on other goals, like social-emotional learning.
  • Aligning with school-year curriculum: Summer learning curricula are generally closely aligned with those of the most recently completed academic year, including repurposing lesson plans, assignments, and other materials. This reduces the burden on teachers to prepare fresh lessons; helps teachers deliver lessons at a higher quality; and ensures students receive the most pertinent coursework. Both single- and multi-subject summer learning initiatives have demonstrated strong results.
  • Coupling academics with enrichment: Most summer learning programs include a significant enrichment component beyond that of the standard school year. The intent is to provide extracurricular activities that are engaging, foster a love of learning, and support social-emotional growth. This may include field trips, sports/games, art, and more. In many cases, enrichment programming is delivered by community-based organizations or non-teacher staff members. Many high quality programs seek to blend academic instruction with enrichment activities.
  • Lower average daily cost than a typical school day: The National Summer Learning Project estimated that a typical program costs about $1100-2800 (as of 2014) per student to implement a five-week program with six hours of programming per day with class sizes of 15 students or fewer, including academics, meals, transportation, and enrichment activities. This is lower than the per-student cost of a typical school day.
  • Offering programs that support the whole family: Summer learning programs also may support secondary goals that benefit the broader community, like providing affordable summer childcare options to working families. Other benefits include stabilization or continuation of social and emotional support, medical services, and others.

Multiple meta-analyses of rigorous, independent program evaluations found that well-implemented summer learning programs positively impact a range of academic and behavioral outcomes.

  • A 2021 meta-analysis found that summer programs improved students' math achievement and resulted in positive social-behavioral outcomes. The results were consistent across high- and low- poverty settings.

  • A 2016 randomized controlled trial found that students who participated and had high attendance levels in district-led, voluntary summer learning programs displayed improvements in mathematics.   

  • A 2013 meta-analysis of 41 summer reading interventions found that students who participated in interventions including teacher-directed literacy interventions showed significant improvement on multiple reading outcomes. Furthermore, the study suggested that there may be relatively larger benefits for children from low-income households.

  • A 2011 RAND review of 13 experimental or quasi-experimental studies found that well-designed summer learning programs (e.g., that had smaller class sizes, differentiated instruction, curricula aligned to the school year, etc.) led to positive short-term improvements in math and reading.

Before making investments in this strategy, city and county leaders should ensure it addresses local needs.

The Urban Institute and Mathematica have developed indicator frameworks to help local leaders assess conditions related to upward mobility, identify barriers, and guide investments to address these challenges. These indicator frameworks can serve as a starting point for self-assessment, not as a comprehensive evaluation, and should be complemented by other forms of local knowledge.

The Urban Institute's Upward Mobility Framework identifies a set of key local conditions that shape communities’ ability to advance upward mobility and racial equity. Local leaders can use the Upward Mobility Framework to better understand the factors that improve upward mobility and prioritize areas of focus. Data reports for cities and counties can be created here.

Several indicators in the Upward Mobility Framework may be improved with investments in high-quality programs. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in this strategy could help, examine the following:

Mathematica's Education-to-Workforce (E-W) Indicator Framework helps local leaders identify the data that matter most in helping students and young adults succeed. Local leaders can use the E-W framework to better understand education and workforce conditions in their communities and to identify strategies that can improve outcomes in these areas.

Several indicators in the E-W Framework may be improved with investments in high-quality programs. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in this strategy could help, examine the following:

  • 6th grade on track: Percentage of students in grade 6 with passing grades in English language arts and math, attendance of 90 percent or higher, and no in- or out-of-school suspensions or expulsions.

  • 8th grade on track: Percentage of students in grade 8 with a GPA of 2.5 or higher, no Ds or Fs in English language arts or math, attendance of 96 percent or higher, and no in- or out-of-school suspensions or expulsions.

  • 9th grade on track: Percentage of students in grade 9 with a GPA of 3.0 or higher, no Ds or Fs in English language arts or math, attendance of 96 percent or higher, and no in- or out-of-school suspensions or expulsions.

  • Grade point average: Percentage of students with a GPA of 3.0 or higher.

  • Math and reading proficiency in grade 3: Percentage of students in grade 3 who meet grade-level standards in reading/English language arts and math as measured by state standardized tests.

  • Math and reading proficiency in grade 8: Percentage of students in grade 8 who meet grade-level standards in reading/English language arts and math as measured by state standardized tests.

  • Math and reading proficiency in high school: Percentage of tested students who meet grade-level standards in reading/English language arts and math, as measured by state standardized tests.

Research by the National Summer Learning Project and others, as well as best practices highlighted by our contributors lift up the following design components as most essential in driving positive outcomes:

  • Dosage of at least 3-4 hours of academics per day: Evaluations show that, in general, increased educational attainment is proportional to the number of hours of instruction a student receives. Research recommends three to four hours of academic instruction per day, with the remainder of the full-day programming consisting of enrichment activities, and a minimum of 20 program days, or five to six weeks in length

  • Small class or group sizes, ideally fewer than 20: Research suggests capping class size at around 20 students, on average, with the smallest class sizes in early grades. Expert opinion suggests that smaller class sizes can also help with teacher recruitment, create more positive classroom environments, and facilitate more individualized instruction. Some experts also noted that smaller classroom sizes were most effective for younger students, suggesting an instructor to student ratio of roughly 1:11 for grades K-1, 1:15 for grades 2-8, and 1:25 for high school. These student to supervising adult ratios are also recommended, where possible, for programs that are structured differently than traditional classrooms.

  • Incentivized attendance: Research finds that attendance is central to the achievement of outcomes, and that students must attend at least 80 percent of program days in order to achieve the best results. Therefore, programs should be designed in such a way to maximize a student’s ability and desire to attend, in addition to providing holistic support to the whole family. Design attributes that facilitate greater attendance include engaging program models with high-quality enrichment activities; voluntary, full-day programming; and efforts to reduce financial and logistical barriers, like free or low-cost enrollment, free meals, and free transportation.

  • High-quality instruction: Effective summer learning programs require comprehensive staffing, employing both certified academic teachers with grade-level expertise, as well as enrichment instructors with content expertise. Experts recommend hiring certified teachers when possible, but note that well-trained staff with the cultural competency to serve the demographics of their students is critical and can result in high quality programs, regardless of certification.

  • Alignment with school-year curriculum: Summer learning curricula are generally closely aligned with those of the standard academic year, including repurposing lesson plans, assignments, and other materials. Typically programs focus on content from the most recently completed academic year, although they may introduce skills or topic areas from the upcoming grade level if attainment is high.

  • Program measurement and evaluation: Continuously tracking students’ enrollment and attendance in the program and conducting a formal program evaluation help ensure that programs are achieving their goals and allows for refinement year-over-year, particularly in cases where a large selection of programs is available within one district. Incorporating evaluation efforts into initial program design instills this practice as a priority. Metrics should ideally be aligned with school-year measurement.

Other aspects of program designs, such as enrichment topics, delivery model of academics and enrichment (e.g., how and when academics and enrichment are dispersed throughout the program day), program setting, and more can be flexible tailored to the needs of the community, and specific to individual programs and program providers.

  • Use data to identify and recruit target groups: District data such as test scores, grades, attendance, or disciplinary data, prior summer program enrollment data, and demographic indicators can help identify students who are academically vulnerable or are experiencing disparities related to systemic racism. Most high quality programs set target groups for whom they prioritize recruitment efforts. Some districts hold multiple waves of enrollment, wherein priority groups are able to enroll before the general student population. Other districts put priority groups “first in line” for registration.

  • Engage community to identify barriers to participation: In order to prioritize equity, there must be a conscious effort to engage community members and give them a substantive voice in decision-making and program design: students, parents, caregivers, community leaders, people who are alumni of the program, and others can help inform various aspects of a summer learning program.

  • Ensure language accessibility: Ensure that program materials and curricula are provided in the language most appropriate for student needs. Hire staff who have the language skills required to support students who may not speak English as a first language.

  • Support students with special needs: Hire teachers and staff that have appropriate training and credentials to support students with special needs.

  • Create accessible registration pathways: Design pathways to be as accessible as possible, taking into account language access. Offer registration both digitally and via traditional paper forms to account for varying digital fluency. Evidence also shows that leveraging teachers and other school staff such as parent liaisons to encourage enrollment with personalized communications to target families tends to be highly effective.

  • Provide meals and transportation: Address logistical and financial barriers that may prevent students and families from participating by providing meals and transportation. Some programs in urban locations may provide free or subsidized public transit cards, while others may arrange bus service.

  • Plan for full-day programming: Aligning summer programming to the workday can support families by providing free or low-cost care for their children. Experts also note that flexible and varied schedules that are geared toward families may help facilitate increased attendance for some students.

  • Leverage expertise of community-based organization (CBOs) partners: Make funding accessible to CBOs that will allow them to invest in their staff, conduct training on equity, structural inequality, and racism, and generally build organizational capacity. Ensure that they are supported in complying with the requirements of larger, public procurement processes, which can be prohibitive for some small organizations. Leverage CBOs to hire appropriate staff who have established rapport with community members.

  • Community organizations: Community organizations with particular areas of expertise, like art or athletics, may make good partners to provide enrichment activities that fall outside the expertise of school staff. It is crucial to ensure that community organizations are aware of the opportunity to deliver summer learning programs, and that they are provided adequate support to navigate the application or Request-for-Proposal process.

  • City and district leadership: Mayors, City Managers, District Superintendents, Chambers of Commerce and other local leaders can help raise awareness about the importance of summer learning, elevate summer learning opportunities to the public, and disseminate information about enrollment and other topics key to participation.

  • District data teams: Many districts have existing staff who are dedicated to data management and analysis. Partnerships with such teams can be critical for collecting and sharing relevant student data for recruitment, enrollment, and evaluation purposes.

  • City and state intermediaries: Many jurisdictions utilize partner 501c3 organizations that act as the intermediary to collaborate with community organizations and public school stakeholders to mobilize and coordinate a network of out-of-school time providers. These intermediaries can provide technical assistance to community-based organizations, support monitoring and evaluation efforts, and set programmatic standards based on evidence and best practices.

  • Parents and caregivers: Guardians play a critical role in the registration and enrollment process. Engaging parents and caregivers can help encourage attendance and guard against learning loss

  • Teachers’ Unions: Unions may need to be a part of the conversation regarding hiring of their members, and they can be strategic partners in determining job designs that may incentivize participation among particularly high-quality teachers and those of hard-to-staff subjects, like special education or STEM subjects.

  • Philanthropic Funding: In many jurisdictions, philanthropic funding can help build capacity of summer learning programs and supplement public funding to provide services such as meals and transportation.

  • Personalize recruitment: Communication to students and parents should be targeted and persistent in order to encourage enrollment. Programs may rely on school liaisons that have existing relationships with parents and caregivers to ensure students enroll. Persistence is key–programs ideally will continue to follow up with families during enrollment and throughout the program to maximize participation. Programs may also undertake public campaigns in partnership with city leadership to spread awareness.

  • Staff based on estimated attendance: Research estimates that about 75% of enrolled students attend on any given program day. Many programs advocate for staffing based on the estimated number of attendees, rather than enrollees, in order to manage costs.

  • Incentivize teacher participation: Many experts pointed out that teaching during the summer is optional for teachers, so it is vital that high-quality teachers want to participate. Some approaches to incentivizing teacher participation include:
    • Small class sizes: A classroom with fewer students is easier to manage and allows teachers the ability to focus on the most rewarding aspect of the job–providing high quality support and instruction to young people.

    • Compensation: Experts emphasize that compensation should be within the range of the average rate for a teacher in a particular locality, but caution that higher wages are generally not the primary driving factor for most teachers who choose to teach in the summer. Without ensuring other aspects of a high quality teaching experience, a modest amount of additional compensation may make little difference.

    • Flexible schedule: Many high quality programs offer flexible schedules–allowing teachers to determine their own schedule or number of hours. Some also facilitate role sharing for summer programs that serve older students, for whom shifting teachers is not as disruptive to the educational experience. Experts advise that programs should allow educators to set schedule preferences at the onset of the program, but keep schedules consistent throughout the program duration in order to facilitate trusting relationships between staff and students.

    • Balance pre-planned curricula with autonomy: Summer programs should consider providing pre-planned curricula and/or other instructional resources, while also continuing to allow autonomy should a teacher wish to create their own lessons.

    • Flexible licensing: All else being equal, a certified teacher with content and grade-level expertise is preferable. However, in some cases there may be other individuals who are well qualified to staff summer programs. Some programs foster partnerships with local teacher colleges or identify high-performing classroom aides or school staff. In other cases, community based organizations may be connected to individuals who are well known and embedded within the community who could serve as effective summer programming providers.

  • Centralized administration: Approach to administration of high-quality programs is varied and may live within a variety of institutions, from school districts, to other city government offices, to nonprofits. Dedicated staff are typically hired, and a program director may be responsible for comprehensive planning 4-6 months prior to the start of the summer program. In many cases, administration of summer learning programs may take place year-round, flowing from evaluation and reporting on the outcomes of one year into planning for the subsequent year. The centralized staff may be responsible for issuing the RFP, contracting with community organizations who will deliver the program, and ensuring that contracted agencies meet design and quality standards. Building in staff capacity for these responsibilities ensures that administrative tasks do not fall on teachers, while also providing the connective tissue to link all available summer opportunities together, facilitating a “no wrong door” approach to enrollment.

  • Bake in evaluation: Program measurement, evaluation, and continuous improvement should be instilled throughout planning and implementation. Some programs train at least one staff member per program in assessment methods. In some cases, trained staff may visit, observe, and provide constructive feedback to programs that are similar to their own.

  • Build around mandatory testing: In some states, students who do not meet state standards in math and reading are required to take assessments during the summer. It is crucial to consider this when creating curricula and program schedules to ensure that it does not preclude academically vulnerable students from participating in experiences like field trips or special activities. This avoids making the assessment punitive for some students, when others are not required to test.

  • Attendance: Student attendance is the most important driver of success. As such, monitoring attendance throughout summer learning programs allows staff to intervene quickly once attendance becomes a problem. Programs should be prepared to report on the number of students who completed at least 75% of scheduled program hours.

  • Demographic data: Comparing attendance and participation rates across varying demographics is important to assess the success of equity efforts by helping to surface barriers for particular groups of students, and to evaluate if efforts to enroll and serve priority groups are working.

  • Academic attainment or social emotional learning outcomes: Some programs with data-sharing agreements with districts advocate for use of school-year academic assessments to measure student success, while others institute pre- and post-tests. Assessment tools that may be employed include the Survey for Academics and Youth Outcomes and Holistic Student Assessment.


Results for America would like to thank the following contributors who lent their expertise to the creation of this resource:

  • Dr. Valerie Adams-Bass: Valerie N. Adams-Bass is an applied researcher at Rutgers University seeking to advance scholarship that provides meaningful contributions to the lives of Black youth and their families. Her research integrates contextual factors with a focus on how Black children see themselves and related outcomes. Dr. Adams-Bass regularly trains youth development professionals to use culturally relevant practices when working with African American children and youth.
  • Wil Cardwell: Wil Cardwell joined Boston After School & Beyond in 2018 and currently serves as the Managing Director of Partnerships and Summer Learning. In this role, he oversees a citywide effort, in collaboration with Boston Public Schools and local community-based agencies, to leverage summer to close student achievement and opportunity gaps.
  • Dr. Andrew Maxey: In his 20+ years as an educator, Andrew Maxey has consistently sought to provide students with more support for their learning than what is available during the regular school day. As the architect of his district's work to provide students with high-quality, engaging learning experiences in the summer he continues to search for ways to improve and expand those offerings. Under his leadership, Tuscaloosa City Schools' summer learning program is a 2023 winner of New York Life Foundation's Excellence in Summer Learning Award.
  • Dr. Jennifer McCombs: Dr. McCombs is the Director of Research at the Learning Policy Institute. Her research focuses on evaluating the extent to which public policies and programs improve outcomes for children and youth facing disadvantage. She has served as a member of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Committee on Summertime Experiences; the National Center on Afterschool and Summer Enrichment Technical Work Group; and the National Summer Learning Association Research Advisory Committee. Prior to joining the Learning Policy Institute, McCombs was Director of Behavioral and Policy Sciences Department and a senior researcher at RAND where she continues to serve as an adjunct senior policy researcher.
  • Dr. Emily Morton: Dr. Emily Morton is a Researcher at the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) at the American Institutes of Research (AIR). Her research focuses on estimating effects of K-12 education policies and programs on student achievement. She conducts much of her research in partnership with schools and districts with the intention of producing actionable findings that will directly inform policy and practice and serve to reduce inequality