In a new analysis of more than 35 previous studies of summer programs in mathematics for children in grades pre-K–12, a team of researchers affiliated with the Harvard Graduate School of Education has documented compelling evidence of the effectiveness of these summer learning experiences. In both higher- and lower-poverty settings, children who took part in summer programs that included mathematics activities experienced “significantly better mathematics achievement outcomes” compared to a control group, the analysis showed, as well as evidence of beneficial noncognitive outcomes. The study gives school and district leaders a clear signal that summer learning — and summer learning in mathematics, in particular — can be a productive piece of the puzzle when it comes to fortifying an equitable recovery from COVID’s disruptions.
For more insight, we interviewed the co-authors of the new analysis: Kathleen Lynch, Ed.D.’18, an assistant professor at the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut; HGSE Lecturer Zid Mancenido, Ph.D.’22; and Harvard Ph.D. student Lily An.
In your new research, you analyzed previous studies of summer math programs aimed at K–12 students. Tell us more about what you looked at — and what motivated you.
Kathleen Lynch: Relatively weak math proficiency among many U.S. students is a critical policy concern, and the COVID pandemic has caused kids to fall even further behind grade level benchmarks in math. Summer programs are a prime opportunity not only to help kids recover academically from the pandemic, but also to learn about new topics of interest and pursue enrichment.
But the existing research reviews on whether summer programs are effective in mathematics, and under what conditions, were outdated. The last systematic review of the effectiveness of summer programs was conducted over 15 years ago, and summer learning programs have changed quite a bit over that period. The “summer schools” that many adults remember from their own childhoods have often been replaced by new kinds of programs that integrate features like hands-on enrichment, social-emotional learning, and recreational options. Research methods have also improved over that period, with more studies using methods that can causally determine the effectiveness of a program. We undertook this meta-analysis because we wanted to take a fresh look at the contemporary evidence on how effective summer programs are at boosting students’ mathematics achievement, and characteristics of summer programs that may be linked to stronger learning impacts.
Were you able to identify specific characteristics of effective summer math programs?
Zid Mancenido: One characteristic that we found to be associated with stronger-than-typical student mathematics learning outcomes was focusing program content specifically on mathematics. While perhaps unsurprising, this supports one of our key recommendations: that policymakers should consider targeting summer programs specifically to students’ academic needs — for example, offering summer programs with a mathematics focus to students who have fallen behind specifically in math.
What are some of the other high-level takeaways of this analysis for school and district leaders — and for parents?
Lily An: The results indicate that school and district leaders should consider increasing their investments in summer programs as a research-based strategy to improve academic skills. The studies we looked at showed positive impacts on math learning for students in both lower- and mixed/higher-income settings, which points to the potential for summer programs to aid students from a variety of backgrounds in their COVID-19 pandemic-related educational recovery. By giving students’ mathematics learning a meaningful boost, summer programs also have the potential to contribute to stronger long-run STEM educational and career opportunities and outcomes for students.
How would you contextualize your findings within an overall COVID recovery environment that is also prioritizing students’ mental and emotional wellness? Does a spotlight on additional academics in the summer compete with other priorities that support overall wellness — summer jobs, recreation, social activities, downtime?
Lynch: Children benefit from participating in a blend of structured and unstructured activities during the summer, including free play and recreation. Especially given all of the trauma that kids have experienced with the pandemic, fostering social-emotional development and wellness as well as reigniting kids’ love for learning are all critically important.
Learning and downtime during the summer doesn’t have to be an either/or. Summer programs are often relatively short compared to the duration of summer, leaving time for a mix of free play and other activities.
The number of studies that measured noncognitive impacts of summer programs is relatively small, but the evidence we found suggested that there’s unlikely to be a tradeoff between learning and noncognitive outcomes from attending summer programs. The pattern of findings was consistent with small noncognitive benefits from participation. Research-based strategies for supporting kids’ noncognitive skills in out-of-school time programs, such as active learning and making social-emotional skills a specific program focus, are also likely to be beneficial in summer programs.