Summer learning programs

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Scientifically Supported

Strategies with this rating are most likely to make a difference. These strategies have been tested in many robust studies with consistently positive results.

Health Factors  
Date last updated

Summer learning programs provide academic instruction to students during the summer, often along with enrichment activities such as art, music, theater, sports, or outdoor activities. Programs typically spend one to two hours for each academic subject covered, and operate four to eight hours per day, four or five days per week, for four to eight weeks. Programs can also facilitate home-based reading, often with teacher-selected books and encouragement. Programs can be offered by school districts, national providers, or local community organizations. Programs often serve low-performing students, but may also serve all students. On average, students who do not participate in summer learning programs lose about a month of academic gains during the summer1, 2.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased academic achievement

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is strong evidence that summer learning programs improve participants’ reading1, 3, 4, 5, 6 and math outcomes1, 4, 6, 7, although some programs are more effective than others2.

Overall, academically-focused programs such as mandatory programs focused on remedial learning, voluntary programs supporting accelerated learning1, 2, 6, and non-classroom-based reading-at-home programs2, 3 have been shown to increase student achievement. Some studies find larger effects for students from middle income families than students whose families have lower incomes6; other studies show the greatest literacy benefits among children from low income families3. Disadvantaged students generally have greater levels of summer learning loss than their more advantaged peers, especially in reading1, 2.

Reading or math focused academic programs increase academic achievement for at-risk students more than general or minimally academic programs. Reading focused programs are most effective for students in kindergarten through 3rd grade4; programs focused on reading for children with reading difficulties (ages 6 to 9) improve reading and literacy outcomes by preventing summer decline8. High achieving students referred to Project SPARK, a math focused summer learning program, increased mathematics achievement more than non-participating peers; gains were similar among students from families with low and high incomes9. Students at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders can benefit from integrating intensive literacy instruction with social emotional learning opportunities in summer programs10.

Consistent program attendance is associated with improved student outcomes1. Actively recruiting students and offering engaging material2, 11, 12 and extracurricular enrichment along with academics can support consistent attendance2, 6, 11, 12. Smaller classes or individualized instruction appear to yield stronger effects than larger classes2, 6, 11, especially in reading13. Programs with a longer duration appear to have greater effects than shorter programs, although those with very high durations (e.g., more than 100 hours for math and 210 hours for reading) appear less effective6, 12, 13.

Researchers and implementers of successful programs also recommend early and thorough planning by qualified staff; hiring qualified teachers, especially those with grade level and subject-matter experience; focused efforts to maximize academic time on task11; and recruiting students well before the start of the summer program2, 6, 11. Regular program assessment and improvement efforts can also strengthen effects2, 12.

Large-scale programs that primarily serve disadvantaged students have been shown to cost $7 to $19 per student per hour, typically less than regular school-year instruction. Staff salaries comprise most of this cost. Summer learning programs of all types can be supported by federal grants, state funds, philanthropic gifts, and parental fees2, 14.

Students who receive free or reduced price school lunch during the school year, who may struggle with food insecurity during the summer months, can be offered breakfast and lunch through summer learning programs15.

How could this strategy impact health disparities? This strategy is rated likely to decrease disparities.
Implementation Examples

In 2013, 33% of American schoolchildren participated in summer learning programs, and 51% of families report that they would like their children to participate in summer learning programs if one were available to them16. The American Youth Policy Forum identifies many federal funding sources that can be used to establish or augment local summer learning programs to help meet this additional demand14.

The National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) recognizes leading summer programs or models through its annual Excellence in Summer Learning Award; finalist and winning communities are located throughout the country17.

Some programs such as the Breakthrough Collaborative, which has 24 locations throughout the U.S. and one in Hong Kong, offer summer learning programs as well as afterschool programming during the academic year. The Breakthrough model offers college undergraduates the opportunity to serve as teachers under the guidance of professional teachers, and program participation is available to middle and high school students from under-resourced communities18.

Implementation Resources

NSLA - National Summer Learning Association (NSLA). Together we can ensure that every child is safe, healthy, and engaged in learning during the summer.

US ED-21st Century CLC - U.S. Department of Education (U.S. ED). 21st Century community learning centers (CLC).

RAND-McCombs 2011 - McCombs JS, Augustine CH, Schwartz HL, et al. Making summer count: How summer programs can boost children's learning. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation; 2011: Monograph Report 1120.

IES WWC-Beckett 2009 - Beckett M, Borman G, Capizzano J, et al. Structuring out-of-school time to improve academic achievement. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences (IES), U.S. Department of Education (U.S. ED); NCEE 2009-012.

Bell 2007 - Bell SR, Carrillo N. Characteristics of effective summer learning programs in practice. New Directions for Youth Development. 2007;2007(114):45-63.

NCSL-Summer - National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Summer learning programs.

SFC-Summer learning 2016 - Sandherr L. Summer learning opportunities near you. Stand for Children. 2016.

TWF-Summer learning resources - The Wallace Foundation. Knowledge center: Our summer learning resources. 2018.

ULC-Summer learning toolkit - Urban Libraries Council. Libraries at the center of summer learning and fun: An online toolkit to expand from summer reading to summer learning. 2018.

USDA-Summer meals - U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Find summer meals in your community. 2018.


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1 RAND-McCombs 2017 - McCombs JS, Whitaker A, Yoo PY. The value of out-of-school time programs. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation; 2017:1-22.

2 RAND-McCombs 2011 - McCombs JS, Augustine CH, Schwartz HL, et al. Making summer count: How summer programs can boost children's learning. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation; 2011: Monograph Report 1120.

3 Kim 2013 - Kim JS, Quinn DM. The effects of summer reading on low-income children's literacy achievement from kindergarten to grade 8: A meta-analysis of classroom and home interventions. Review of Educational Research. 2013;83(3):386-431.

4 CG-Knopf 2015 - Knopf JA, Hahn RA, Proia KK, et al. Out-of-school-time academic programs to improve school achievement: A Community Guide health equity systematic review. Journal of Public Health Management and Practice. 2015;21(6):594-608.

5 Zvoch 2017 - Zvoch K, Robertson MC. Multivariate summer school effects. Studies in Educational Evaluation. 2017;55:145-152.

6 Cooper 2000 - Cooper H, Charlton K, Valentine JC, Muhlenbruck L. Making the most of summer school: A meta-analytic and narrative review. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. 2000;65(1):1-127.

7 Snipes 2015 - Snipes J, Huang C-W, Jaquet K, Finkelstein N. The effects of the Elevate Math summer program on math achievement and algebra readiness. Regional Educational Laboratory. 2015:1-38.

8 Christodoulou 2015 - Christodoulou JA, Cyr A, Murtagh J, et al. Impact of intensive summer reading intervention for children with reading disabilities and difficulties in early elementary school. journal of learning disabilities. 2017;50(2):115-127.

9 Little 2017 - Little CA, Adelson JL, Kearney KL, Cash K, Brien R. Early opportunities to strengthen academic readiness: Effects of summer learning on mathematics achievement. Gifted Child Quarterly. 2017;62(1):83-95.

10 Zeng 2016 - Zeng S, Benner GJ, Silva RM. Effects of a summer learning program for students at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders. Education and Treatment of Children. 2016;39(4):593-615.

11 RAND-Augustine 2013 - Augustine CH, McCombs JS, Schwartz HL, Zakaras L. Getting to work on summer learning: Recommended practices for success. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation; 2013.

12 IES WWC-Beckett 2009 - Beckett M, Borman G, Capizzano J, et al. Structuring out-of-school time to improve academic achievement. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences (IES), U.S. Department of Education (U.S. ED); NCEE 2009-012.

13 Lauer 2006 - Lauer PA, Akiba M, Wilkerson SB, et al. Out-of-school-time programs: A meta-analysis of effects for at-risk students. Review of Educational Research. 2006;76(2):275-313.

14 AYPF-Brand 2018 - Brand B. Meeting the unmet demand for afterschool and summer learning programs. American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF). 2018.

15 AYPF-Kannam 2018 - Kannam J. Summer learning programs: Benefits beyond academics. American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF). 2018.

16 ASA-America - Afterschool Alliance (ASA). America After 3PM special report on summer: Missed opportunities, unmet demands.

17 NSLA-Award - National Summer Learning Association (NSLA). Excellence in summer learning awards.

18 Breakthrough - Breakthrough Collaborative. Breakthrough operates summer and school-year programming for students from under-resourced communities. 2018.