Strategy overview

  • Preventing summer learning loss: The primary objective of most summer learning programs is to prevent summer learning loss (wherein students regress academically if they go without any learning and enrichment activities during the summer break). Most approaches include a combination of academic and enrichment programming that help students build momentum going into the next school year. Typically, programs last at least five weeks and include three or more hours of academic coursework per day.
  • Addressing disparities: In many communities, summer learning loss disproportionately impacts students from low-income families, thus exacerbating existing disparities in academic outcomes. While programs can vary significantly based on student age and program capacity, many summer learning programs are tailored to provide intensive support to students who do not meet school or district standards in math or reading. Enrollment is often voluntary, though eligibility depends on the size and scope of the program.
  • Free or heavily subsidized: To maximize access and attendance, evidence-based summer learning programs are typically free or heavily subsidized. Districts often invest in supplemental benefits similar to those offered during the school year, such as free transportation, meals, and afterschool child care (for younger students) .
  • Aligning 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. This has several effects: it reduces the burden on teachers to prepare fresh lessons; it allows teachers who have already been trained in the curriculum to deliver lessons at a higher quality; and it ensures students are receiving the most pertinent coursework to succeed alongside their peers. Both single- and multi-subject summer learning initiatives have demonstrated strong results.
  • Supplementing 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 and can 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.

What evidence supports this strategy?

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 in mathematics improved students' math achievement and resulted in positive social-behavioral outcomes. The results were consistent across high- and low- poverty settings.

  • 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.

Is this strategy right for my community?

Providing summer learning opportunities has been shown to improve outcomes predictive of upward mobility. These outcomes, identified by the Urban Institute, are effective public education, preparation for college, social capital, and employment opportunities.

City and county leaders can assess local conditions for each of these outcomes using the metrics below, identified by the Urban Institute. This assessment can be used to determine whether this strategy is appropriate for their community. (Note: these metrics are a starting point for self-assessment and are not intended to be comprehensive.)

All cities and counties with populations over 75,000 can receive a customized data sheet here.

  • Measuring the effectiveness of public education in your community: Examine the average per-grade change in English Language Arts achievement between the third and eighth grades. These data are available from Stanford University’s Education Data Archive.

  • Measuring preparation for college in your community: Examine the share of 19- and 20-year-olds with a high school degree. These data are available from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

  • Measuring social capital in your community: Examine the number of membership associations per 10,000 people and the ratio of residents’ Facebook friends with higher socioeconomic status to their Facebook friends with lower socioeconomic status. These data are available from the Census Bureau’s County Business Patterns and Opportunity Insights’ Social Capital Atlas, respectively.

Best practices in implementation

  • Start with staffing: Staffing summer learning programs with high-quality teachers has been a consistent and long-term challenge across jurisdictions. In the COVID era, this challenge has only grown more severe. Consider a range of options to incentivize school staff to participate in summer learning programs, including increasing pay, shifting administrative or non-teaching responsibilities away from teachers to district staff, and providing educators with as much pedagogical flexibility as possible (i.e. teaching classes outside or trying new methods of student engagement).
  • Invest in comprehensive, full-day programming: To maximize the impact of a summer learning program, many components should mirror the school year. This should include at least three hours each day of evidence-based academic programming, which can be supplemented with enrichment activities. Providing free transportation and meals also helps improve attendance, and in turn, increases program impact.
  • Aim for small classes: Summer learning offers a unique opportunity for more frequent individualized academic instruction and deeper engagement with enrichment activities. Districts and program leaders should prioritize sufficient staffing to ensure students have relatively small academic and enrichment classes — generally no more than 15 students — allowing for more individualized learning and stronger classroom relationships.
  • Communicate the value of attendance: A major challenge reported by many summer learning programs is consistent attendance, which may stem from negative perceptions around “summer school” and/or that daily attendance is voluntary. Throughout the school year and in all recruiting materials, programs should emphasize the value of daily attendance. Such communications should also include information on efforts to reduce barriers to access, like free transportation and on-site afterschool child care. Some concrete tactics, like setting clear enrollment deadlines and including frequent activities focused on fun, have a demonstrated impact in further boosting student outcomes.