Voluntary Summer Learning Programs Improve Outcomes

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

A new study has found that elementary school students who regularly attend voluntary summer learning programs saw benefits in the areas of math and reading.

The National Summer Learning Project takes a closer look at if and how voluntary summer learning programs benefit low-income children to increase academic performance levels. The study notes that summer is typically the time of year when low-income students lose ground in comparison to their wealthier peers. However, it could become a time when this group of students could improve their outcomes when given additional opportunities.

Five school districts participated in the study, including Boston, Dallas, Duval County, Florida, Pittsburgh, and Rochester, New York. Each district offered students five or six weeks of summer programs at no cost, each of which included enrichment activities and instruction in the areas of math and language arts.

The new results show what impact the program had on students during 2013 and 2014. Grades, achievement test scores in math and language arts, measures of social and emotional skills, and year-round attendance and suspension rates were all determined in order to track school-year outcomes. Student outcomes will be tracked through spring 2017 for the study.

A randomized controlled trial was conducted by RAND researchers in which results were compared for students who participated in the summer programs and for those who did not. In addition, specific groups of students, such as those who participated for at least 20 days, were compared to the control group. The outcomes of 3,192 students who had completed third grade before the first summer were analyzed.

The first summer resulted in improvements for students with high attendance rates and those who had completed at least 20 days of the program in math when compared to the control group. In addition, those improvements were found to continue throughout the school year. By the end of the second year, those who had high attendance rates were found to outperform the control group in both math and language arts throughout the following year.

Results show the academic advantage for students with high attendance levels equalled between 20% and 25% of the average annual gains in math and reading by the end of the second summer.

Because the results were controlled for both prior achievement and demographics, researchers believe that the results were due to participation in the program.

"Our study clearly shows the benefits for the students who had high attendance rates or high amounts of academic instruction in the summer learning programs," said Catherine H. Augustine, the study's lead author and senior policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "To help as many students as possible reap these benefits, the study suggests that districts run summer programs for at least five weeks, include sufficient time on academics, and focus on the challenge of achieving high attendance rates."

In all, 60% of students who participated in the summer program attended for at least 20 days. Average daily attendance for the program was found to be 76%, while the average attendance rate during the school year is 96%.

Performed by the RAND Corporation, the study is the largest research study ever conducted on the topic of summer learning. At a cost of $50 million, the study has been funded by the Wallace Foundation since 2011.

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