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The effectiveness of summer school in closing achievement gaps — June 2018


What does the research say about the relationship between summer school and closing student achievement gaps?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and resources on the relationship between summer school and closing student achievement gaps. The sources included ERIC, Google Scholar, and PsychInfo. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

Research References

Alexander, K., Pitcock, S., & Boulay, M. C. (Eds.) (2016). The summer slide: What we know and can do about summer learning loss. New York: Teachers College Press. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This book is an authoritative examination of summer learning loss, featuring original contributions by scholars and practitioners at the forefront of the movement to understand—and stem—the ‘summer slide.’ The contributors provide an up-to-date account of what research has to say about summer learning loss, the conditions in low-income children’s homes and communities that impede learning over the summer months, and best practices in summer programming with lessons on how to strengthen program evaluations. They also show how information on program costs can be combined with student outcome data to inform future planning and establish program cost-effectiveness. This book will help policymakers, school administrators, and teachers in their efforts to close academic achievement gaps and improve outcomes for all students. Book Features: (1) Empirical research on summer learning loss and efforts to counteract it; (2) Original contributions by leading authorities; and (3) Practical guidance on best practices for implementing and evaluating strong summer programs. Recommendations for using program evaluations more effectively to inform policy.”

Browne, D. (2013). Think summer: Early planning, teacher support boost summer learning programs. Journal of Staff Development, 34(6), 46–49. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “A fundamental problem that continues to plague educators is the achievement gap between low-income and higher-income students. In the ongoing search for solutions, one of the more promising approaches is expanding opportunities for learning, particularly in the summer. This article describes a project funded by The Wallace Foundation that offers guidance on how to start a district-wide sumer program from scratch, or how to improve an existing program. This guidance offers handy assistance for harried district officials, for whom launching and sustaining a summer program and tailoring professional learning to the summer was not easy. By making the decision to start early, recruit the best teachers available, and give them the professional learning, support, and time they need to do their job well, districts can set the stage for a fruitful learning summer.”

Camasso, M. J., & Jagannathan, R. (2018). Nurture thru nature: Creating natural science identities in populations of disadvantaged children through community education partnership. Journal of Environmental Education, 49(1), 30–42. Research brief retrieved from

From the abstract: “In this article we describe the development, implementation, and some of the early impacts of Nurture thru Nature (NtN), an American after-school and summer program designed to introduce elementary school students in disadvantaged, urban public schools to natural science and environmental education. The program, which began operations in 2010 as a collaboration of Rutgers University, Johnson & Johnson, and New Brunswick, New Jersey, public schools, was motivated by broad concerns over the achievement gap in science and mathematics that has long characterized student performance in the state’s suburban and inner-city schools. We present results from a classical experiment conducted in four elementary schools which suggest that NtN does improve grades and knowledge of science and nature.”

David, J. L. (2010). Some summer programs narrow learning gaps. Educational Leadership, 68(3), 78–80. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The article discusses the educational outcomes and benefits of summer education programs for children in closing the achievement gap for disadvantaged students. Research on learning among poor children and summer schools is reviewed. It is noted that summer schools can positively impact academic achievement, the educational benefits may vary by student based on socioeconomic factors and program design may also impact academic improvement. The availability of funding for summer school programs and the cost of transporting students are considered as obstacles to successful programs.”

Greenman, A. (2015). Rhode Island’s innovative solutions to summer learning loss. State Education Standard, 15(1), 24–27. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Summer learning loss has been documented in the United States since early in the 20th century. These early studies measured differences in test scores at the beginning of the summer and at the end, and discovered that students did not retain information during the summer. Studies conducted throughout the 20th century confirmed this. Later studies also discovered evidence of summer learning loss in reading ability and reading comprehension. A meta-analysis of summer learning studies found that, on average, students lose up to two months of grade-level equivalency in math during the summer when not engaged in learning. For low income students, that two-month loss also occurs in reading. A longitudinal study of a Baltimore, Maryland, summer program found that up to two-thirds of the achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers could be attributed to unequal access to quality summer programming. More recently, efforts have been made across the country to address this gap in learning during the summer months, especially for low-income children. The National Summer Learning Association has led efforts to boost the quality of summer programs and to encourage programs to meet the social, emotional, academic, and health needs of children. This article discusses efforts in Rhode Island to leverage the opportunity that summer provides to educate children, to keep them sharp academically, and to provide them with engaging new experiences. While there is still more work to do locally to reach scale, Rhode Island has positioned itself for growth through strong public-private partnerships and through strong collaborations between schools and community educators.”

Kim, J. S., & White, T. G. (2011). Solving the problem of summer reading loss. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(7), 64–67. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The article discusses summer reading loss in students, particularly among low-income students. The authors suggest that education research shows that low-income students perform more poorly than middle-income students after the start of the school year and present an alternative approach to addressing this achievement gap. They argue that summer school programs are not effective in preventing summer reading loss among low-income students and suggest a solution that targets low-income children who are at risk from summer reading loss. The solution involves students reading books that are matched to their reading levels and interests, the use of scaffolding in summer reading, and instruction in reading over the summer.”

McCombs, J. S., Augustine, C., Schwartz, H., Bodilly, S., McInnis, B., Lichter, D., & Cross, A. B. (2012). Making summer count: How summer programs can boost children’s learning. Education Digest: Essential Readings Condensed For Quick Review, 77(6), 47–52. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “During summer vacation, many students lose knowledge and skills. By the end of summer, students perform, on average, one month behind where they left off in the spring. Participation in summer learning programs should mitigate learning loss and could even produce achievement gains. Indeed, educators and policymakers increasingly promote summer learning as a key strategy to improve the achievement of low-performing students. Rigorous studies have shown that strong summer programs can achieve several important goals: (1) reverse summer learning loss; (2) achieve learning gains; and (3) give low-performing students the chance to master material that they did not learn during the school year. The authors recommend that districts and other providers invest in staffing and planning for summer learning programs, actively incorporate practices that will help ensure the success of programs, and maximize the benefits of partnerships and a variety of funding sources. They also offer recommendations for policymakers and funders who are interested in supporting summer learning programs.”

Smith, L. (2012). Slowing the summer slide. Educational Leadership, 69(4), 60–63. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Research shows that summer slide—the loss of learning over the summer break—is a huge contributor to the achievement gap between low-income students and their higher-income peers. In fact, some researchers have concluded that two-thirds of the 9th-grade reading achievement gap can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities during elementary school. The author of this article, chief executive officer of a summer program called Horizons National, describes how schools can take advantage of community and foundation partnerships to give their low-income students ‘the sort of enrichment typically reserved for more-affluent youngsters.’ During the 6-week Horizons summer program, students realize average gains of three months in reading and math skills. Horizons and similar programs, Smith writes, have produced positive results in terms of student motivation and attitude.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

Afterschool Alliance –

From the website: “Our mission: To engage public will to increase public and private investment in quality afterschool program initiatives at the national, state and local levels.

Our goals:

To be an effective voice for afterschool in efforts to expand quality afterschool programs.
To serve as an information source on afterschool programs and resources.
To encourage the development of local, state and national afterschool constituencies and systems.
To communicate the impact of afterschool programs on children, families and communities.”

REL West note: Two reports published by Afterschool Alliance are relevant to this request, as follows:

Afterschool Alliance. (2010). America after 3PM special report on summer: Missed opportunities, unmet demand. Washington DC: Author. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “For many children in America, summer vacation means camp, trips to new or familiar destinations, visits to museums, parks and libraries, and a variety of enriching activities—either with families or as part of a summer learning program. But for millions of others, when schools close for the summer, safe and enriching learning environments are out of reach, replaced by boredom, lost opportunities and risk. This disparity in summer learning opportunities each summer is a great shame and a significant contributor to the crisis in education in this country. Research spanning 100 years shows that students typically score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer vacation than they do on the same tests at the beginning of the summer. More than half of the achievement gap present in ninth grade between lower and higher income youth can be explained by summer learning loss that disproportionately affects low-income children. It is a significant part of the reason that low-income youth are less likely to graduate from high school or enter college. It’s true that some children and families in America have the luxury of choosing from a variety of summer learning opportunities including summer camps, community-based programs, parks and recreation activities, library reading programs and traditional summer school. This report focuses specifically on summer learning programs—safe, structured programs that provide a variety of activities designed to encourage learning and development in the summer months—since high quality summer learning programs are emerging as an important strategy to prevent summer learning loss. The data for ‘America After 3PM Special Report on Summer’ were collected in the 2009 ‘America After 3PM’ study, which surveyed nearly 30,000 households. This report presents general findings and breaks them out by ethnicity and socio-economic status as measured by eligibility for free and reduced price lunch, while also offering data on demand and support for summer learning programs in each state.”

Afterschool Alliance. (2013). The importance of afterschool and summer learning programs in African-American and Latino communities. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “In classrooms across the country, when students hear the bell ring at 3 p.m., it signals the end of the school day and, for many, the start of an afternoon without supervision, without productive activities and without direction. Afterschool and summer learning programs are filling the invaluable role of providing essential services—such as a safe and supervised environment, academically enriching activities, healthy snacks and meals, and caring and supportive mentors—to children and families most in need of support. The need for these afterschool and summer learning programs is especially vital in African-American and Latino communities, communities that are experiencing higher levels of poverty, homelessness and food insecurity, and are facing disparities in education and access to extracurricular activities. Funding for afterschool and summer learning programs is a sound investment that will help meet the demands of, and bring much needed services to, African-American and Latino communities by: (1) Ensuring children have access to academically enriching activities, helping close the opportunity gap between higher-income and lower-income families; (2) Tackling the achievement gap between white students and African-American and Latino students by increasing attendance, homework completion and engagement in school, and ultimately raising graduation rates and test scores; (3) Combating food insecurity among children by providing nutritious snacks and meals, which are especially important during the summer months when schools are out of session; and (4) Providing working parents with peace of mind knowing that their child is in a safe and supervised space during the out-of-school hours. At a time when afterschool programs serving communities that are in most need of help are struggling to keep pace with demand, greater investments at the federal, state and local levels are essential to make certain all children have access to the range of benefits afterschool and summer learning programs provide and are better equipped to succeed in school and life.”

Child Trends –

From the website: “Child Trends is a trusted leader in research about children, youth, and families. Our work ranges from doing high-level analyses to helping organizations make their direct services more effective. Our clients are researchers, policymakers, funders, and practitioners. All of our work is aimed at improving children’s lives, now and in the future.”

REL West note: One report published by Child Trends in 2019 is relevant to this request, as follows:

Terzian, M., & Moore, K. A. (2009). What works for summer learning programs for low-income children and youth: Preliminary lessons from experimental evaluations of social interventions. Washington, DC. Author. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Children and youth who reside in economically disadvantaged households and in low-resource, urban neighborhoods are more likely to lose ground in math and reading over the summer than their higher-income peers. Although summer learning programs are a promising strategy for narrowing this achievement gap, surveys indicate that only 25 to 36 percent of U.S. children between 6 and 11 years of age attend summer programs (excluding summer school). This Fact Sheet presents some emerging lessons from 11 summer learning programs that were evaluated using experimental research designs. These programs are included in the Child Trends’ online database of experimentally-evaluated, out-of-school time interventions—LINKS (Lifecourse Interventions to Nurture Kids Successfully). All of the programs were implemented with economically disadvantaged children and youth. The findings of this synthesis suggest that summer learning programs can be effective and are likely to have positive impacts when they engage students in learning activities that are hands-on, enjoyable, and have real-world applications. This review also suggests some insights into promising practices. Programs that are guided by grade-level curricular standards, are led by experienced teachers, conduct classes with 15 or fewer students and at least two adults, and complement group learning with individual support were also found to be effective.”

Educational Testing Service (ETS) –

From the website: ETS is a team of education experts, researchers and assessment developers who believe that, through learning, people can improve their situations in life and make incredible contributions to the world. We also believe that by designing our assessments with industry-leading insight, rigorous research and an uncompromising commitment to quality, we can advance equity and help education and workplace communities make informed decisions about people and programs.”

REL West note: One report published by ETS in 2010 is relevant to this request, as follows:

Yaffe, D. (2010). Addressing achievement gaps: After the bell rings — Learning outside of the classroom and its relationship to student academic achievement. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Each day, children spend more hours outside of school than in it. Yet education reformers have principally targeted the classroom, paying relatively little attention to what goes on during out-of-school hours. Now, however, reformers are beginning to realize that closing the stubborn achievement gaps separating low-income minority students from their more affluent White peers requires new attention to the many varieties of out-of-school learning—tutoring, summer school, even educational television. Efforts to expand and coordinate such supplementary education programs face many of the same obstacles that bedevil classroom reforms: budgets are tight, alignment with other educational efforts is imperfect, and proving that new initiatives increase achievement can be problematic. Still, with a new presidential administration apparently committed to rethinking education policy, it may be an auspicious moment for carrying education reform beyond the classroom. The promise of supplementary education was the focus of the 12th in the ETS’s series of ‘Addressing Achievement Gaps’ symposia, launched in 2003. The conference was co-sponsored by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and co-convened by A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education; the After-School Corporation; the Institute for Educational Leadership and its Coalition for Community Schools; the National Council of La Raza; and the National Urban League. Held October 5–6 in Washington, D.C., the conference featured two dozen researchers, advocates and educational administrators as presenters and discussants. This issue provides an overview of the conference.”

The National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) –

From the website: “The National Summer Learning Association serves as a network hub for thousands of summer learning program providers and stakeholders across the country, providing tools, resources, and expertise to improve program quality, generate support, and increase youth access and participation. We offer professional development, quality assessment and evaluation, best practices dissemination and collaboration, and strategic consulting to states, school districts, community organizations, and funders.”

REL West note: One report published by NSLA in 2017 is relevant to this request, as follows:

National Summer Learning Association. (2017). Accelerating achievement through summer learning. Baltimore, MD: Author. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This report is designed as a resource for program providers, education leaders, policymakers, and funders who are making important decisions about whether and how to strengthen and expand summer learning programs as a way to accelerate student achievement. In addition to 13 case studies of diverse program models, this report includes a look at key research on what works in summer learning and an overview of supportive state policies. While the case studies focus on specific providers, the key themes and success factors are transferable to many settings and programs. The featured program goals of third-grade reading proficiency, successful middle school transitions, college and career readiness, and teacher training and retention are some of the most critical underpinnings of efforts to improve K–12 education today.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

(“summer school” OR “summer program”) AND (“achievement gaps” OR “achievement gap”)

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and selecting resources to include, we consider the criteria listed below.

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published within the last 15 years, from 2003 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases. Priority is also given to sources that provide free access to the full article.
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, and we may also include descriptive data analyses, survey results, mixed-methods studies, literature reviews, or meta-analyses. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality. Priority is given to publications that are peer-reviewed journal articles or reports reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations. If there are many research reports available, we select those with the strongest methodology, or the most recent of similar reports. When there are fewer resources available, we may include a broader range of information.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.