Study: Summer learning programs provide advantages for students

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Students attending a voluntary, school district-led summer learning program Dallas ISD entered school in the fall with stronger mathematics skills than their peers who did not attend the program, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

Among the students studied in Dallas, students attending at least 22 days of the summer program or receiving at least 39 hours of reading also entered school in the fall with a meaningful advantage in reading. While this impact cannot be generalized to students across the study, the study did identify key factors linked to reading achievement.

The near-term findings did not indicate significant improvement in social and emotional outcomes compared to their peers.

Summer learning loss disproportionately affects low-income students and therefore likely contributes to the achievement gap between these students and their higher-income peers, according to researchers.

The new RAND findings provide the first student outcome data in a six-year study of summer learning programs in five urban areas, which is the most comprehensive research on summer learning to date. It is part of a $50 million project funded by The Wallace Foundation to examine whether and how two consecutive summers of voluntary, district-led summer programs – offering academic instruction and enrichment activities like arts and field trips – help boost low-income students’ success in school.

Dallas ISD, operating the summer camp in partnership with Big Thought, a local nonprofit focused on improving academic and social outcomes through creative learning, is one of five urban districts participating in the study conducted by RAND Education. Students in the study were in the third grade as of spring 2013 and enrolled in a public school. Researchers used a randomized controlled trial to assess the effects of district-run voluntary summer programs on student achievement and social and emotional skills in the fall after the students participated in the summer program.

“This pilot program and others like it are a significant step for a school district to make,” said Mike Miles, Dallas ISD superintendent. “We will be able to be able to accurately assess just how much of an impact an effective summer program can make for a student, especially those who are at-risk or from low-income families and transform the summer enrichment paradigm from a focus on quantity of programs to more high-quality offerings.”

“These early findings show that voluntary, district-run summer learning programs can benefit low-income elementary students in terms of their math skills,” said Jennifer McCombs, co-author of the report and a senior policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “Those students who attended more often and received more instructional hours in math performed best on the math assessment.”

Students who took part in the summer learning program gained the equivalent to more than one-fifth of the amount of growth in math skills achieved by the typical student between the spring of 3rd grade and the spring of 4th grade.

The Wallace Foundation has announced plans to make an additional investment to extend summer programs in Dallas ISD and the four other school districts for two more summers, provide technical assistance to the districts and to develop additional knowledge and tools for field-wide use.

The camp is structured to maximize a student’s opportunity to learn throughout the day –through core curriculum instruction taught by Dallas ISD teachers during math and English/language arts classes, and enrichment activities such as theater, visual arts, dance or music taught by community instructors and partners coordinated by Big Thought.

When classroom instruction is paired with real-world, hands on exploration, learning ignites for our kids,” said Gigi Antoni, President and CEO of Big Thought.  “Their imaginations spark when they practice math during a cooking class, reading during theater class, or experiment with science by building a robot. We are proud to partner with our district to coordinate the best educational assets our city has to offer in order to make learning come alive for our students during summer camp.”

The RAND study revealed several important drivers of student success. In math, increased attendance, and more hours of instruction made a difference in performance. Some students in the study outperformed others on the reading assessments. Students whose summer reading teacher had just taught the sending or receiving grade during the school year performed better on the reading test than did students with teachers unfamiliar with their grade level. Students whose reading teachers scored higher on RAND’s measure of instructional quality outperformed students with lower scoring teachers.

Finally, students in summer sites rated by teachers as having strong behavior management policies and well-behaved students outperformed students in the control group in reading.

“The findings are meaningful and useful. The math advantage was substantial, and we have clues on how to strengthen reading,” said Will Miller, president of The Wallace Foundation. “Another important thing we learned is that school districts can indeed implement summer learning programs with features based on research, attract students and get them to attend regularly enough to make a difference. Over the next two years, we will learn more about the full impact of these programs on grades, standardized tests, and behavior.”

Among the study’s key recommendations:

  • School district leaders interested in implementing summer programs should offer programs that operate five-to-six weeks and, if the district wants to improve math outcomes, provide 60 minutes to 90 minutes of mathematics each day.
  • Program providers should strongly encourage consistent student attendance, protect time for academic instruction and help teachers maximize instructional time inside the classroom.
  • District leaders should take particular care in selecting reading teachers for summer programs, choosing effective reading teachers with grade-level experience in either the sending or receiving grade.
  • Establishing clear expectations for student behavior, ensuring consistent application across teachers, and developing methods of maintaining positive student behavior in class may pay off in terms of student achievement in reading.

The next report will describe the effect of one summer of programming on achievement, attendance and behavior during the 2013-2014 school

year. Subsequent reports will assess the impact of two consecutive years of voluntary summer programming for urban students and the cost of such programs. The findings will build the knowledge base over time about how to design and implement summer learning programs, what outcomes the programs are likely to produce and what practices are associated with success, according to researchers.

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