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What Summer School Can and Can't Do

Whether summer school is the right solution to make up for lost academic time in COVID.
Catherine Augustine

Despite talk about using the summer to make up for lost learning time during the pandemic, Catherine Augustine knows a lot more goes into planning a summer school program than meets the eye. As a senior policy researcher at RAND Corporation, she has spent many years studying what makes summer school a success. It’s not as simple as picking a curriculum and offering a program, especially on the heels of COVID.

“[Schools] need to recruit teachers who want to be there, who are motivated to focus on the kids in the summer, who have the right background skills and experiences. That might be particularly challenging this year, if teachers are more stressed and burned out than they typically are,” she says. “Getting the curriculum right for the summer is also a challenge. There aren't a lot of off-the-shelf curricula that districts can purchase for the summer. There are some, but of course a district wants to be sure that the curriculum they use in the summer aligns to their own standards and to those kids' needs.”

In this episode of the EdCast, Augustine shares the many different ways summer school can benefit children and what makes can make a program effective.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson, this is the Harvard EdCast.

There's been a lot of talk about summer school as a way to make up for lost learning time during COVID. Catherine Augustine wants to remind that summer school isn't magic. She has long studied summer school to better understand what makes these programs effective. Many children benefit academically from summer school programs, and there's many ways to consider how helpful these programs can be. I wanted to know more about what summer school can and can't do. First, Catherine filled me in on what summer school actually looks like today.

Catherine Augustine: Even the old fashioned kind of summer school, which is not in vogue now but the kind that you and I might remember from our childhood, where we were sitting, if we went, in un-air conditioned classrooms, going through academic material by rote memorization, even those worked. Their goal typically tends to be getting kids to advance to the next grade level, that happens after kids go through those types of remedial summer programs even today. Those kinds of programs work. The kind that we studied, which are voluntary summer programs, we also saw that they were effective. Now, the caveat there is that students needed to attend them, because those programs are voluntary, unlike the remedial summer school.

Certainly, there are other kinds of summer programs like career programs for high school students that have amazing outcomes in terms of reductions in crime and graduation from high school and success in the workforce later in life. There are all sorts of summer programs that do work, and so as districts and states are thinking about what to do, they should familiarize themselves with the structure of these programs, which ones work, and for those that do, how exactly they work.

Jill Anderson: Talk to me a little bit about the attendance issue and what can be done to mitigate that.

Catherine Augustine: It depends on how you think about attendance and success. In our study, for example, which was the largest RCT done on summer programs to date, we saw over the course of four years that each summer, about 20% of the kids who enrolled never showed up and those who did attended about 75% of the time. We saw that in order to benefit academically from these programs, they needed to attend at least 20 of the 25 days, and 60% of the kids did that. Then half of those kids came for a second summer. So you tell me, is that a success or is that a failure? Depending on the size of these programs, it's a lot of kids. If you have 60% of the kids attending and then benefit, that's actually not bad when you look at other types of education interventions.

It's not perfect, and when I talk about these rates with other school districts, many of them say, "Oh, we could do better than that," and maybe they can. We saw in the programs we studied that kids attended at higher rates if the programs themselves were what we called warm and welcoming with a positive climate, if kids were greeted at the door and I don't know if this would happen post COVID, but if they were hugged when they arrived, if they were walked with in the transitions between classes, if the teachers ate lunch with them in the classroom. If the kids really felt like they were bonding with adults and with the other students, they tended to come back and they had higher attendance rates than these averages that I just shared with you.

Jill Anderson: That's so interesting. What about incentives to get their kids to come to summer school?

Catherine Augustine: The districts we worked with tried a number of incentives, and you are right, one of the districts gave those incentives to parents. If the kids attended so many days, the parents would get a gift card to a local grocery store. Other districts gave the incentives directly to kids, so if you attended X number of days, you could take a big field trip at the end, like the kids in Jacksonville, Florida got to go to Disney World. Others gave smaller incentives, but for a particular class instead of the individual kids. If everybody attended within a class for four out of the five days or every day in the week, there'd be an ice cream party on Friday.

Now, all three of those types of incentives worked to some degree. The incentive for parents was very expensive and probably not replicable. The smaller incentive for the ice cream parties, that also worked because kids were putting peer pressure on each other to come back and it was a short term benefit that they could foresee actually happening in their near future. I think that districts need to get to know their own kids best and what would work for them and motivate them, but those incentives were not as strong in motivating attendance as was having a positive, warm, and welcoming climate.

Jill Anderson: What are some of the big roadblocks that districts face when they try to put in a summer school program?
Catherine Augustine: Well, we recommend planning them quite early. Putting on a summer program is akin to planning an entire school year, but you're just planning it for five weeks, right?

Jill Anderson: Right.

Catherine Augustine: Many districts, particularly large urban districts like we studied, serve thousands of kids in these programs. They need to bus them, they need to hire the teachers, they need to have the curriculum ready, they need to train the teachers in advance, they need to recruit the students. Most districts start that planning in the fall, sometimes as late as January, but if they're just starting now, they might not be able to put on as ambitious of a program for this summer as they otherwise could. Planning early is really important, particularly for larger programs.

We found that if a district is focusing on both math and reading it, for elementary school-aged kids, those are caveats, then the programs should last for at least five weeks. That can be a challenge for districts, because teachers want to have a break after the school year ends, or perhaps a break before they go back. Other things need to happen in the summer in districts, buildings need to be repaired, teachers need to go through training, so finding those five weeks can be a challenge.

They also need to recruit teachers who want to be there, who are motivated to focus on the kids in the summer, who have the right background skills and experiences. That might be particularly challenging this year, if teachers are more stressed and burned out than they typically are. Getting the curriculum right for the summer is also a challenge. There aren't a lot of off-the-shelf curricula that districts can purchase for the summer. There are some, but of course a district wants to be sure that the curriculum they use in the summer aligns to their own standards and to those kids' needs. Figuring out who to invite to the summer program and then how to tailor the curriculum can be a challenge as well.

Jill Anderson: I guess I'm wondering how realistic and feasible it might be to implement some type of summer school program off the cuff at this point. Are schools too late to actually do this?

Catherine Augustine: In all honesty, I think they're probably too late to launch the large multi-subject programs that we studied. But if they had such a program in the past, it's not too late, if they're simply going to repeat something they've offered or revive something they've offered recently. I do think that districts could provide a less ambitious program. It could be reading only combined with reading-related activities, like playwriting or something else that requires reading but is fun for the students. It could be a math/STEM program only, where students are focusing on math but also building something using robotics or doing something else that is also fun and engaging and active. I do think districts can certainly make use of the summer, for sure, but they should probably focus on one subject, unless, like I said, they're skilled at doing this and have done it in the recent past.

Jill Anderson: Does it make sense to mandate summer school for all kids, considering the unique circumstances of COVID, or does it not make sense to do that?

Catherine Augustine: In my opinion, it does not. Other people might disagree and might have good reason to do so. The programs that we studied had 15 or fewer kids per class, and those were the kids whom the district and teachers, principals, identified as really needing this time in the summer, and for lots of different reasons, in addition to perhaps falling behind academically. Teachers told us they were really able to focus on kids in small groups, sometimes one-on-one. Obviously, tutoring is being advocated now, and for good reason, and that happens in programs with smaller class sizes. Mandating summer for all kids is the equivalent of extending the school year, right?

Jill Anderson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Catherine Augustine: That could be beneficial for sure. It's obviously not going to address achievement gaps within a school district. I send my daughter to a public school and she's actually doing well, but so many of her friends and kids she knows are not. There are kids who've not showed up yet at all in the past year, which is a tragedy. Kids who are really struggling if they've been online all year or even in a hybrid situation, so why not take the summer to focus on the kids who need it the most. My daughter wouldn't need it, but other kids in her exact same school would. In my opinion, extending the school year for all is a missed opportunity to focus on the kids who are most disadvantaged.

Jill Anderson: Then making that voluntary for that population of students, would you say?

Catherine Augustine: Here's the challenge with having a mandatory summer program. As I said earlier, they have been shown to work, but they really require a strong stick. In most cases, it's your kids got to go or they're going to be retained in grade. Parents today, if given a choice, don't want their kids to go to a mandatory summer program that the parents see themselves as not having a say in and it brings back memories of awful summer school programs from their past. What parents want is they want a program that is going to advance their kids academically, but also is going to allow them to have fun. Attracting parents by promoting a summer opportunity that does both is, based on our research, the best way to get parents to sign up.

Now, I should remind you that we studied elementary school programs, so I know less about middle school or high school programs, although, most of those programs are not mandatory unless you consider a credit recovery program at the high school level to be mandatory. I would not make the programs mandatory unless there is a really strong stick. If a district has the ability through board policy to retain kids in grade and plans to do that unless they've reached some kind of standard, absolutely, yeah. Make sure parents know about that and that will be a way that they get kids to attend, but in general, I would recommend that the programs be voluntary.

Jill Anderson: Can you tell us a little bit about, or help parents figure out, when summer school might make sense for their kid?

Catherine Augustine: Yeah, absolutely. I get a lot of questions from parents about what they should do with their kids this summer, primarily because of the pandemic. I try to reassure them a little bit by reminding them that everybody had a terrible year, all kids did. I don't think the vast majority of kids learned as much this past year as they would have otherwise, or last spring for that matter. That anxiety is certainly justifiable, but their kids aren't going to be further behind their peers, necessarily. If their kids have done pretty well, all said, during the pandemic compared to their peers, they probably don't need an academic summer program, but it really depends on what the kid's own needs and goals are as well as what the parents want and what their goals are.

I mean, these summer programs that we studied were free, offered by the school districts, provided free transportation on a bus, which takes away a big barrier, provided lunch, breakfast and a snack, provided sports activities, swimming, biking, canoeing, rock climbing, sand volleyball, I could go on and on, as well as the arts. They benefited kids in a lot of ways, not just academically. If a parent needs that, and I hate to say it, I hate to say if a needs childcare because nobody wants to think about an educational opportunity as childcare, but it's the reality for parents of little kids and they need a program that's free, and they not only think their child would benefit academically, but perhaps also socially by being around their friends early on, by bonding with teachers, there's a lot of good reasons to send your own child to a district-offered summer program.

But certainly not every parent should panic. I don't think their child is necessarily going to be worse off just because of the pandemic. Certainly, some children are worse off for an any host of reasons and not just academically, but mentally, socially, emotionally, et cetera, and there are other summer programs that address other needs too. Finding an opportunity for one's child in the summer, the district program might be the best choice, but certainly another choice might be better.

One thing that I like to tell people or remind people is that summer programs are not magic. We did find that they benefited kids academically. Basically, kids learned in the summer program about 15% of what they learned during the school year. Now, should that surprise anyone? No. Because why? Because summer programs are about 15% of the length of the school year. Kids learn in these programs. I mean, yes, they have to attend, and yes, not every child does, but there are kids benefiting from these programs at the same rate basically that they learn during the school year. No one, policymakers, parents, should think they're magical, that a child will attend a summer program and gain three months of learning, but people shouldn't dismiss them either. They are a tool. If there is funding available now that wasn't available in the past, be creative, get kids engaged. There are a lot of exciting things that these district programs were doing and they do benefit kids. They're not magic, but they are beneficial. I think they're a good option along with others, as parents, districts, policymakers are thinking about how to help kids now.

Jill Anderson: Well, thank you so much. This was really informative.

Catherine Augustine: You are welcome.

Jill Anderson: Catherine Augustine as a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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