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On June 10, 2020, as the U.S. Capitol remained partially shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a virtual hearing on what schools ought to do. Speaking over a video feed from his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, former Obama administration Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. called for “summer distance learning” as one way to mitigate the months of lost learning from school closures.  

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Summer school is on many policymakers’ minds. King, who is now the president of Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income students, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a national teacher’s union, jointly argued for additional funding for summer schooling in an April editorial in the Hill newspaper.  In June 2020, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a think tank based at the University of Washington, posted a survey of summer school plans around the country. Only slightly more than half of the 100 U.S. districts the organization is tracking were planning to offer summer school for elementary and middle school students in 2020, as of the latest update, on June 9. (Summer school is more prevalent for high schools students to retake failed classes.) For the schools that are holding summer school, instruction in most cases will be exclusively virtual — over the internet. But the type of instruction, hours and curriculum vary wildly, depending upon which city or town you happen to live in. 

I was curious what lessons we could take from previous research on summer school to guide us during this unprecedented summer. I could find only one large, well-designed study, published in 2016, that tested how much kids actually learn in voluntary summer school programs. It was targeted at 3,000 low-income children in five cities in 2013. Most of the children were black or Hispanic. Many were low achieving and behind grade level. (The study was funded by the Wallace Foundation, which is also among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)

Researchers at RAND, a nonprofit research organization, had designed a sort of ideal summer school experience drawing upon expert opinions and academic theories. The curriculum wasn’t identical in all five cities:  Boston, Dallas, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh and Rochester.  But the school districts all agreed to the same basic structure: five or more weeks long, a full-day from roughly 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. so parents could work and three hours of reading and math instruction in the morning with certified teachers and a class size of 12 or fewer students. 

As an enticement, afternoons were filled with fun camp activities from rock climbing and sailing to cooking and theater but these were also run by teachers, many of whom were certified in special education for children with disabilities. It was marketed to third graders as a free summer program for two summers in a row and, not surprisingly, many more families applied than there were spots. That allowed researchers to create an admissions lottery and compare the academic and social-emotional outcomes of the 3,000 third-graders who got spots with the 2,400 who didn’t.

The results were disappointing. After two consecutive years of high-quality summer school costing more than $1,300 per student each summer, the kids who went to summer school didn’t do any better academically or by social-emotional measures than the kids who didn’t. One small exception was in math but the initial fourth-grade improvement in math scores was short-lived and it dissipated by the start of fifth grade. 

RAND continued to track the children through seventh grade in 2017, after an additional two years of not attending the summer school. Those final results are expected to be published later in 2020 but I’m not anticipating a surprise turnaround. 

The problem, the researchers discovered, was attendance. Twenty percent of the kids never showed up. Those who did only attended summer school 75 percent of the time despite the fact that the summer school programs in all five cities provided free transportation and food. “Parents had vacations planned,” said Catherine Augustine, lead researcher on the RAND summer school study.   “Or grandma was coming into town. Or the kids got sick. Or there was a football camp they wanted them to do for one week.” Worse, only half the kids came back for the second summer. 

“When we look at the kids who actually attended at high rates, they did well,” she said. 

For the fraction of kids who faithfully attended summer school for both summers following third and fourth grades, reading and math scores were significantly higher in the spring of fifth grade in 2015 than for students who didn’t win the summer school lottery. Indeed, the learning gained during the five weeks of summer school matched the amount that kids typically learn during five weeks of a school year. That’s important. If you can get kids to show up, summer school — with only lessons in the morning — can be as effective as regular school. 

But since kids who missed a couple weeks didn’t reap such benefits, the lesson that Augustine takes away is that summer programs need to be long to be successful. 

“I would still recommend that districts, if they’re going to provide a summer opportunity remotely, make sure that they do it for enough hours, days and weeks to make a difference,” Augustine said. “A lot of districts want to do a two-week summer reading program. But it’s not going to kick kids up above a reading level that their peers are at who didn’t go through that experience.”

Augustine said she was “pessimistic” that virtual lessons over the summer will work as well as face-to-face ones. “We’ve seen so many reports about kids feeling Zoomed out and burnt out from being on screens,” she said. There’s the risk that attendance in virtual summer school will be even worse than in RAND’s in-person experiment.

Harvard education professor James S. Kim praised the RAND study as one of the “most rigorous studies that’s ever been done on the topic” of summer school. But he says there isn’t much wisdom you can gain from it or other studies on summer school when students and teachers are unable to gather in person. “As we try to translate classroom based interventions to an online format, we don’t know how they will impact kids,” said Kim. “The evidence from previous programs doesn’t apply here.”

But he does encourage school systems to try new things this summer and track the results closely so that we can all learn from them. In addition to tinkering with traditional summer school models, Kim suggests that school systems consider adapting aspects of home-based educational models, in which some form of teacher instruction or feedback can be combined with reading materials at home. 

Kim’s expertise is in reading and his best advice to families right now is to download free digital books, for example through the Libby library app, read aloud to your child and discuss books together.

“I would recommend reading aloud from kindergarten to middle school,” said Kim. “Think about what teachers do in middle school to get kids interested in reading texts they otherwise might not read by themselves. They do read alouds. These are simple, low-cost practices that anyone can implement.”

But Kim’s wish for experimentation and innovation by school systems may not become a reality. When Bree Dusseault, a researcher at the Center in Reinventing Public Education, read through districts’ summer plans, she observed that they were largely planning a “virtual version of traditional summer school.” 

“Some are doing that really well,” Dusseault said. She cited Miami’s efforts to target different kids with different interventions, for example, summer reading “camp” for some elementary school children but motivational support for kids who hadn’t been logging into virtual school in the spring. 

But Dusseault hasn’t seen examples of schools testing new ways of teaching online, or trying new ways of mixing in-person with computerized instruction.

“In this new reality, we’re either going to be all virtual or partially virtual. This is an opportunity to pause and pilot and practice approaches that might serve them well in the fall ,” said Dusseault. “It’s a missed opportunity.”

This story about summer school programs was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay is a staff writer and editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth graders for the 2013-14 school year. In school,...

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