What and How Do Summer Schoolers Learn?

Carol McElvain

Over three million K-12 students are now wrapping up summer school. Long gone are tedious bouts of memorizing multiplication tables or spelling lists. In their place? Happier hours spent building rockets, producing plays, tending gardens—truly fun activities that keep struggling students from lagging behind when the school year resumes.

This new summer school is enjoyable because it’s not about failure and remediation. Instead, the governing idea is to keep all kids on track.

The rhythm of instruction is crucial to learning. When that flow is interrupted, it can take weeks of review to relearn what students forgot over the summer.

That is especially true for elementary students from low-income families, as AIR researchers Elizabeth Devaney and Naomi Jacobs found recently in a synthesis of research on summer done for Say Yes to Education in Buffalo, New York.

Years of research show that students from low-income families are more likely to forget previously learned material over the summer than students from wealthier families. Some lose as much as three months of academic knowledge. Over time, these losses add up, widening the socioeconomic disparity in academic performances. Some researchers even blame the summer break for the national achievement gap between students from high- and low-income families.

During summer, many children from higher-income households enjoy multiple opportunities, such as camp or family vacations that reinforce classroom learning.  By a large margin, children from lower income households have far fewer opportunities for this kind of enrichment.

So the bad news is that while all students learn at nearly the same rate during the regular academic year, the differences in summer learning rates from kindergarten on add up. This cumulative loss can undermine a student's chances of graduating from high school, going to college, or pursuing a career.

Now for some good news: If we catch these students early, before they start to fall behind, high quality summer opportunities for low-income students yield positive results, particularly in math.

What constitutes high quality? A 2011 report found an array of program designs associated with improvements in academic retention. All emphasized youth leadership and all provided social-emotional support. The most successful student learning programs had:

  • Instructors who used teaching materials tailored to students’ learning styles and levels
  • Hands-on activities to help students learn by doing
  • Smaller classes—generally half the size of their regular school classes
  • Parental participation

Students in these high-quality programs summer after summer improved their scores on standardized tests at least two years in a row. Done right, summer learning seems to be a wise investment for low-income students. And it doesn't have to feel like drudgery.

Carol McElvain is a managing director at AIR specializing in afterschool and expanded learning.