How Do Summer Programs Influence Outcomes for Children and Youth?
Whereas in Chapter 2 we documented the range of activities children and youth participate in during the summer months, and in Chapter 3 we described the effect that this season has on the development of children and youth, in this chapter we describe what is known from the research literature regarding how participation in summer programs affects young people’s outcomes and the factors that enhance program effectiveness (see Box 4-1). The chapter also includes information about international examples of summer programs.
We note that this chapter is not inclusive of all the activities that children and youth participate in over the summer months, for example unstructured activities and summer programs that have not been rigorously studied. As a result, it does not capture all the benefits that children and youth can derive from positive summer activities, such as the opportunities to explore interests, practice new skills, and practice independence and self-regulation during free time. Instead, this chapter focuses on the effectiveness of structured programs that intend to build certain skills and competencies for children and youth.
CLASSIFICATION OF PROGRAM EFFECTIVENESS EVIDENCE
The earlier chapters drew on a range of research to describe what children and youth do during the summer and how summer affects their development. Much of that discussion is descriptive, but as we turn to examining program effectiveness it is important to determine how confident we are that outcomes measured by the program are the result of the program itself rather than other factors, such as the passage of time or pre-existing differences between participants and those who did not participate. In deciding how to classify research evidence of program effectiveness, the committee was guided by a desire to be helpful to policy makers and practitioners looking to adopt evidence-based practices and to use a scheme that would fit the available evidence. The committee considered a number of classification and rating schemes. We found the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force framework particularly appealing, as it encompasses two important
dimensions: certainty of benefit (with high, moderate, and low levels of certainty) and magnitude of net impact (substantial, moderate, small, zero, and negative). However, due to the variety of outcomes studied, limitations of the available evidence base, and variability regarding what constitutes a small or large effect size depending on measure and age level,1 the committee concluded that we could not accurately classify the magnitude of
1 The committee did not feel we could rely on effect sizes to distinguish the magnitude of benefits. We know that the magnitude of an effect size is influenced by a number of factors, including the type of assessment used, grade level and subject, and type of study conducted. For instance, annual spring-to-spring gains on broad standardized assessments vary by subject and grade level, from as large as 1.52 in reading between spring of kindergarten and spring of first grade, to as small as 0.01 in mathematics from spring of 11th grade to spring of 12th grade (Lipsey et al., 2012). Further, for many measures in the studies we identified, we have no way to benchmark effect sizes.
the benefit for all outcomes beyond three categories: positive, zero, and negative.
We also considered the evidence framework used in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which outlines four tiers of evidence depending on the certainty that a program will create positive child or youth outcomes based on the strength of the research design. The lowest level of ESSA evidence is based on a program having a theory of action, developed in part from the research base, which is inappropriate for the committee’s focus on outcomes. Also, the ESSA framework does not differentiate between well-conducted randomized controlled trials (RCTs) conducted with small numbers of children or youth or at only one site, on the one hand, and studies that had weaker comparison groups, on the other—a distinction the committee felt was important, particularly since some of the interventions studied are not intended to be offered at large scale. Further, given the lack of experimental literature, the committee wanted to include pre/post study designs and to discuss important information about child, youth, and family experiences to provide guidance regarding implementation.
After considering multiple options, the committee determined we would classify quantitative outcomes evidence into three categories that signal our certainty that the program created the measured effect and would do so in other contexts:
- Conclusive evidence. There is strong certainty that the program created positive outcomes for many children and youth that could be replicated in other settings. This evidence comes from a well-conducted rigorous experimental design to identify for causal inference—an RCT that has been conducted with many children or youth (more than 350) across more than one site. In an RCT, participants are randomly assigned to either receive the intervention or participate in a comparison group that does not receive the intervention, providing a robust counterfactual.
- Moderate evidence. There is reasonable certainty that the program created positive outcomes for children and youth. Evidence in this category comes mainly from studies with well-conducted quasi-experimental designs. These designs approximate experimental research by identifying a comparison group that is similar to the program participants’ observed pre-intervention characteristics (e.g., test scores, grade, race, gender). Alternatively, the evidence may come from RCTs where the generalizability of the findings are uncertain due to having a small number of children and youth in the study or due to being conducted at only one site.
- Suggestive evidence. There is evidence of a relationship between program participation and youth outcomes; however, certainty
regarding causality is low and generalizability may be low as well. Evidence in this category comes from three types of studies (a) RCTs with design problems; (b) studies that include a comparison group that was not rigorously matched to intervention participants but includes statistical controls to help reduce selection bias; and (c) pre/post design studies that measure changes in participant outcomes over time but do not have a comparison group of children or youth who did not participate in the program.
In a few cases, we provide qualitative research evidence to document the perspective of children, youth, and families about their program experiences.
The RAND Corporation recently published an ESSA evidence review of summer programming (McCombs et al., 2019). The committee drew heavily on that review to identify the applicable outcomes literature, although our classification of evidence differs from the one used in that review. In addition, committee members identified additional pre/post studies and qualitative literature, including systematic reviews, to include. Because we did not conduct a comprehensive literature review of the pre/post studies, there are studies with suggestive findings that are not cited below. We also note that while the pre/post studies cited examine how participants changed over time, they do not include a comparison group (to observe those that did not participate in the program), and this makes it very difficult to draw conclusions about cause and effect.
EVIDENCE FOR THE EFFECTIVENESS OF SUMMER PROGRAMS
In this section, we detail the evidence for the effectiveness of summer programs by the four categories of outcomes the committee was tasked to investigate: safety, risk-taking, and pro- and anti-social behavior; physical and mental health; social and emotional development; and academic learning and enrichment. Within each of these outcome domains, we discuss the types of programs that show evidence of effectiveness and provide information on the agents that typically offer this type of program.
There is evidence of effectiveness for many different types of programs, but the outcomes research base is not representative of all the types of summer programming available and it does not represent the full range of populations served or all types of agents offering programs. For instance, the majority of identified outcomes studies examined academic summer programs targeted to youth who are low-income or performing below grade level. Even within the academic programs, we found far more evaluations of reading than of mathematics, writing, or science. Other types of popular programs, including sports camps and religious camps, have not been rigorously studied. Also, the literature does not investigate the benefits of
the most common pattern of participation in summer programs, namely, participating in multiple, short programs over multiple summers.
Few summer programs have been studied through trials replicating them in different contexts. Many of the studies we identified are one-off program evaluations, and many contain little information regarding implementation, making exact replication difficult. Further, many of the RCTs include small numbers of children and youth because the programs themselves are intentionally small, while many studies of programs that do include larger populations are not randomized trials. As a result, we found few studies demonstrating conclusive evidence of benefits. Instead, we found more moderate and suggestive evidence.
At the same time, we found no evidence of significant negative outcomes from the reviewed studies. This may stem either from the low probability of harm coming from summer programming or from a bias in publication toward positive findings. It is important to note that while the majority of studies found evidence of effectiveness, studies did not typically find that programs were effective in producing all measured outcomes. Across the studies we identified, about a third of the outcomes measured were positive and statistically significant.
Safety, Risk-Taking, and Pro- and Anti-Social Behaviors
Safety and Supervision
Although no rigorous outcomes studies examined whether summer programs improve physical safety or supervision, the committee believes such effects are both important and likely benefits of many types of summer programs. This is partly because in the afterschool literature conclusive evidence does exist for effects on supervision. RCT of afterschool programs find that children and youth assigned to participate in these programs were more likely to be supervised by adults, and elementary school participants reported feeling safer compared with youth not assigned to these programs. Increased adult supervision also meant that children were less likely to be cared for by older siblings and had less time for unsupervised activities with peers (Dynarski et al., 2003, 2004; Gottfredson et al., 2010; James-Burdumy et al., 2005). Appropriate adult supervision promotes personal safety and reduces participation in risky behaviors (Gottfredson et al., 2010). It is reasonable to think these same benefits accrue to participants in summer programs as well.
Summer can be used as a time to provide programs and interventions intended to reduce risky behaviors, such as alcohol use and unsafe sex. There is moderate evidence that programs can achieve these outcomes (see Table 4-1). For instance, a summer program designed by Johns Hopkins University professors, in collaboration with local community partners, which included a targeted intervention to increase safe sex practices among youth, yielded moderate evidence that it improved youth’s confidence in condom use and their ability to respond safely to potentially risky sexual situations (Tingey et al., 2015). Similarly, a study of an intervention program intended to reduce risky behaviors among girls in foster care transitioning to middle school found moderate evidence that the program reduced substance use and delinquency the next school year (Kim and Leve, 2011).
As described in Chapter 2, many city governments offer youth employment programs. One of the goals of this type of program is to reduce the probability that youth will be the victims or perpetrators of crime during the summer, as these risks increase during the summer months. An RCT of Chicago’s youth employment programs for adolescents at risk of crime involvement found moderate evidence that the programs decreased violent crime arrests, though they had no effect on school enrollment, property crime arrests, or drug crime arrests (Heller, 2013).
TABLE 4-1 Safety: Research Evidence for Summer Program Effectiveness
|Benefits||Evidence Level||Type of Program||Children and Youth Targeted by Studied Program||Agents Providing Programs|
Reduced Drug Use
|Moderate||Intervention: Program for caregivers and girls in foster care to reduce substance use and delinquency||Foster youth entering middle school (24 youth: 11 treatment, 13 control)||Government, nonprofit|
Increase in Safe Sex Practices and Dispositions
|Moderate||Intervention: Safe sex and healthy relationship curriculum embedded in a recreation program||Native American adolescents (267 youth: 138 treatment, 129 control)||University, nonprofit|
Decrease in Violent Crime Arrests
|Moderate||Youth employment program||Adolescents at risk of crime involvement (1,634 youth: 700 treatment, 934 control group)||Government, private|
Physical and Mental Health
Summer programs can be designed to improve the physical health and well-being of children and youth, and we have suggestive evidence they can achieve this goal. One study found that overweight children and youth in a residential physical health summer program who attended for at least 29 days had short-term weight loss, improved blood pressure, and increased aerobic fitness (Gately et al., 2005). Another pilot study of a 7-week summer program for migrant children that included a healthy eating and exercise curriculum, found that BMI improved for the participants, with greater benefits accruing to children who attended regularly (Kilanowski and Gordon, 2015).
There is suggestive evidence that structured programs, such as summer school, may prevent weight gain and help maintain physical fitness over the summer due to the structured environment itself, with its restricted access to unhealthy food and time set aside for exercise (Park and Lee, 2015). There is also descriptive evidence that both day camps and overnight camps establish conditions for physical activity that would support physical health. For instance, Hickerson and Henderson (2014) measured the number of steps youth took during a typical day camp experience and a typical overnight camp experience; they found that the number of steps nearly met or exceeded the guidelines for youth physical activity set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Similarly, Brazendale and colleagues (2017) found that the majority (70% to 80%) of day camp attendees were meeting the recommended levels of moderate to vigorous physical activity during their camp time.
As noted earlier, many communities offer free summer meal programs, because summer is a time of greater food insecurity for low-income children and youth who rely on free and reduced-price lunches during the school year. While there are no studies examining the effectiveness of such programs in promoting physical health, a recent study indicates that there may be an unmet need for these programs. Only 15 percent (3 million students) of the 20 million children who receive free and reduced-price lunches during the school year consistently received free summer lunches during the summer (Anderson et al., 2018).
The committee found no evidence that summer detrimentally effects the mental health of children and youth. Indeed, summer is a time when children and youth with mental health needs can participate in targeted programs that provide them with support.
We found moderate evidence (see Table 4-2) that these targeted programs can be effective in achieving some improved mental health outcomes. The majority of the studies providing this evidence are RCT of small populations of children and youth; at the same time, these programs are not intended to be offered at scale to large numbers of children at one time.
For example, a week-long program for girls with separation anxiety disorder—which provided cognitive behavioral therapy, repeated practice in separating from parents and peers, and opportunities for social interaction—produced moderate evidence of decreasing separation anxiety and increasing global functioning (Santucci and Ehrenreich-May, 2003). A 4-week
TABLE 4-2 Physical and Mental Health: Evidence for Summer Program Effectiveness
|Benefits||Evidence Level||Type of Program||Children and Youth Targeted by Studied Program||Sectors Providing Programs|
Weight Loss and Improved Blood Pressure and Aerobic Fitness
|Suggestive||Residential weight loss||185 overweight treatment children and 94 comparison children (some overweight and some normal weight)||Nonprofit, for-profit|
|Suggestive||Nonresidential healthy living curriculum||Migrant children in grades 1–8 (33 comparison and 138 intervention)||Schools, nonprofit|
Prevented Weight Gain and Maintained Physical Fitness
|Suggestive||Academic summer school||Hispanic high school students (138 students: 70 summer school attendants and 68 non-attendants)||Schools|
Reduced Anxiety and Improved Global Functioning
|Moderate||Intervention: 1 week-long program providing cognitive behavioral therapy, repeated exposure to separation, and opportunities for social interaction||Children and youth with diagnosed anxiety disorder (29 girls: 15 treatment and 14 control)||Nonprofit, university|
Reduced Levels of Depression
|Moderate||Intervention: 4-week school-based self-advocacy training program for rising ninth graders with learning disabilities||Youth with disabilities (83 youth: 43 treatment, 40 comparison)||Schools, nonprofit|
program providing self-advocacy training among students with learning disabilities reduced depression among participants (Stevens, 2005).
Social and Emotional Development
Summer is a time all agents can use to advance various aspects of children’s and youth’s social and emotional skills. We found moderate evidence (see Table 4-3) that programs designed to meet the specialized needs of specific groups of children and youth produced social and emotional benefits.
For instance, two studies examined programs that focused on increasing self-advocacy among students with disabilities. The shorter of these, a 1-week program, was found to improve youth self-advocacy skills (Grenwelge and Zhang, 2012), and the longer of these, a 4-week program, improved participants’ attributional style (i.e., how one explains the cause of events) and self-esteem (Stevens, 2005). Similarly, we find moderate evidence from a 3-week Canadian therapeutic summer program for children and youth with learning disabilities coupled with social, emotional, or behavioral issues, namely that the program reduced social isolation and improved self-esteem into the next school year (Michalski et al., 2003).
Programs designed for children and youth with social difficulties show moderate evidence of effectiveness in improving social skills (Hektner et al., 2017) and the ability to seek friendship help (Foley-Nicpon et al., 2017). All the specialized programs that were rigorously studied demonstrated moderate or suggestive evidence of effectiveness. It may be that the efficacy of these programs is tied to their intense targeting of populations identified as being in need of such programs. However, as is the case with other types of programs, none of the programs that measured multiple outcomes was effective in producing all the outcomes measured.
One study of a voluntary pre-kindergarten (pre-K) academic program for low-income children found moderate evidence that participation in the program aided students with social aspects of their transition to school (Berlin et al., 2011). Another study, which examined the effects of residential camp for overweight children and youth, found suggestive evidence that in addition to reducing participants’ weight it resulted in improving their self-esteem (Gately et al., 2005).
There is substantial suggestive evidence that medical camps, such as camps for cancer patients and children with diabetes, can provide social and emotional benefits to participants. For instance, in research reviews of studies of summer camps for cancer patients, authors identify suggestive evidence that the camps improved participants’ self-concept, friendship, empathy, quality of life, and emotional well-being (Martiniuk et al., 2014; Packman et al., 2005). For instance, children at a camp for cancer patients described gaining more confidence in social settings and increased engagement with peers:
TABLE 4-3 Social and Emotional Development: Evidence for Summer Program Effectiveness
|Benefits||Evidence Level||Type of Program||Children and Youth Targeted by Studied Program||Agents Providing Programs|
|Improved Social Skills||Moderate||Early Risers: A 6-week program providing social skills training and opportunities to engage in activities with children without social difficulties||Children with social difficulties (80 youth with difficulties: 54 treatment youth and 26 control youth; and 110 well-adjusted youth: 60 treatment and 50 control)||Schools, nonprofits|
|Improved Ability to Find Friendship Help||Moderate||Social skills training during a talent development program: a university-based 2-week program providing a set of enrichment activities aimed at developing social skills||High-ability children and youth with self-reported social difficulties (43 youth: 34 treatment and 9 comparison)||University|
|Improved Self-Esteem and Attributional Style||Moderate||Just Do It: A 4-week school-based self-advocacy training program for rising 9th-graders with learning disabilities||Youth with learning disabilities (83 youth: 43 treatment and 40 comparison)||Schools|
|Improved Ability to Self-Advocate||Moderate||Texas Youth Leadership Forum: A week-long university-based camp that focused on building leadership and self-advocacy skills in youth with disabilities||Youth with disabilities (68 youth: 34 treatment and 34 comparison)||University|
|Reduced Emotional Lability (exaggerated and intense displays of emotion)||Suggestive||Therapeutic play groups focusing on social competence and self-regulation skills: A 7-week program designed to improve school readiness among foster youth by teaching social skills through therapeutic play groups||Children in foster care (24 youth: 11 treatment and 13 control)||University, nonprofit|
|Benefits||Evidence Level||Type of Program||Children and Youth Targeted by Studied Program||Agents Providing Programs|
|Improved Social Abilities (ability to interpret adults’ tone of voice and assertion)||Moderate||Socio-dramatic affective-relational intervention: A 6-week program offering a socio-dramatic affective-relational intervention (SDARI) to improve social skills among youth with Asperger syndrome and high-functioning autism diagnoses||Youth with Asperger syndrome and high-functioning autism diagnoses (17 youth: 9 treatment and 8 comparison)||University, nonprofit|
|Reduced Social Isolation, Improved Self-Esteem||Moderate||3-week therapeutic camp providing therapeutic and outdoor recreational activities designed to improve social skills, self-confidence, and self-esteem||Children and youth with disabilities coupled with social, emotional, and behavioral problems (48 children and 48 adolescents, pre/post design)||Government (Canadian)|
|Improved Social Transition to Kindergarten||Suggestive||Voluntary pre-K summer programs||Rising kindergarteners from low-income families (100 youth: 60 treatment, 40 control)||Schools|
|Improved Self-Esteem||Suggestive||Weight loss camp||Children and youth who are overweight (185 children)||Nonprofit, for-profit|
|Improved Social Skills, Leadership, Self-Efficacy, Values, Humor, Independence||Suggestive||Recreation program||Children and youth (various pre/poststudies)||Nonprofit, for-profit|
|Improved Self-Concept, Empathy, and Friendship, Quality of Life, and Emotional Well-Being||Suggestive||Medical camps||Children and youth with medical conditions and siblings of children and youth with medical conditions (various pre/poststudies)||Nonprofit|
I was super nervous and shy ‘cause I was bald—being a girl and bald, it does not work that well! But [my mother] made me come and it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. After I left camp, I wasn’t shy. (Gillard and Watts, 2013, p. 893)
In a literature review of camps for burn victims, lasting 2 days to 1 week, authors find qualitative evidence suggesting that burn camp can decrease camper isolation, improve self-esteem, and promote coping and social skills, though the quantitative pre/post studies had mixed findings. (Maslow and Lobato, 2010).
Although they are very popular, summer camps (both day and overnight) are typically not formally evaluated. The American Camp Association (2017) finds that 93 percent of overnight camps target the development of youth social skills, but only 25 percent of them measure social skill outcomes. Pre/post studies suggest that camps offered to all children and youth can be a context for positive, personal development for youth (Garst et al., 2011), especially when programming is intentionally designed to do so (Bialeschki et al., 2007). Participation in camps has led to improved social and emotional competencies, including teamwork and public speaking (Povilaitis and Tamminen, 2018), leadership development (Garton et al., 2007; Thurber et al., 2007), reading self-efficacy (Garst and Ozier, 2015), independence (Allen et al., 2006), and values (Collado et al., 2013).
Academic learning was the most rigorously studied area of outcomes in the literature we identified. We find evidence of effectiveness for several types of summer academic learning programs, including voluntary programs, mandatory programs, and at-home programs (see Table 4-4). Many of these types of programs have been examined by multiple studies. When this is the case, Table 4-4 reports the highest level of evidence provided by the studies and also indicates, with an asterisk, where there were mixed results from different studies (some having positive findings and others null findings). We note that not all types of academic learning programs have been rigorously studied. For instance, we found no studies of extended school-year programs, likely because school districts are mandated to provide these services to meet the educational needs of students with special needs. Most of the rigorously studied academic learning programs were programs that targeted children and youth from low-income families in an effort to address differential summer learning loss or targeted students performing below grade level to provide academic remediation. We also find evidence of spill-over academic effects in an employment program and an arts program designed for youth in correctional education. Below we
TABLE 4-4 Academic Learning: Evidence for Program Effectiveness
|Benefits||Certainty of Benefit||Type of Program||Children and Youth Targeted by Studied Program||Sectors Providing Programs|
|Improved Reading Achievement Scores||Moderate||Mandatory grade retention program||Children performing far below grade level (2 studies of large urban districts:  57,889 youth in the cohort, with 13% invited to attend the program;  analysis sample of 338,608 students)||Schools|
|Moderatea||Voluntary reading programs||Elementary school children performing below grade level or from low-income families (8 studies with positive, significant findings in multiple contexts, several with large samples of children and youth; 6 studies with no significant findings)||Schools, nonprofits|
|Suggestive||Voluntary pre-K program||Pre-K children from low-income families (94 youth from one school district: 46 treatment, 48 comparison)||Schools|
|Moderatea||Voluntary multi-subject programs||Elementary and middle school children and youth performing below grade level or from low-income families (Multiple studies: 7 studies with positive, significant findings, across multiple contexts, several with large samples of children and youth; 4 studies with no significant findings)||Schools, nonprofits|
|Conclusivea||Reading at home programs||Children from low-income families (Multiple studies: 4 studies with positive, significant findings across multiple contexts with samples larger than 350 students; 3 studies with null findings)||Schools, universities|
|Improved Mathematics Achievement Scores||Moderate||Mandatory grade retention program||Children performing far below grade level (analytic sample of 338,608 students)||Schools|
|Moderate||Voluntary math program||Middle and high school students performing below grade level (Multiple studies: 4 studies with positive significant findings in different contexts, most with samples larger than 350 students)||Schools, nonprofits|
|Suggestive||Mathematics at home||Middle school students (825 youth: 149 treatment, 676 comparison)||Schools, nonprofits|
|Conclusive||Voluntary multi-subject programs||Elementary and middle school students performing below grade level or from low-income families (5,637 youth across five school districts: 3,192 treatment, 2,445 control)||Schools, nonprofits|
|Increased School Year Attendance||Moderate (though only for one cohort studied)||Voluntary STEM program||Middle school students (193 youth)||Schools, nonprofits|
|Increased Number of English Language Arts Courses Taken||Suggestive||High school credit recovery||English learners (1,140 youth)||Schools|
|Increased Course Completion||Suggestive||High school bridge program||Ninth-grade youth at risk of dropping out (2,866 youth in six school districts)||Schools|
|Improved Enjoyment of Academic Learning and Intention for High School Selection||Moderate||Voluntary, multi-subject||Academically motivated, underserved middle school students (423 youth)||Nonprofit|
|Increased Advanced Test Taking and Test Scores||Conclusive||Youth employment||Youth from low-income families (195,289 youth)||City government|
|Improved Grades||Suggestive||A 3-week summer-intensive musical theater program intended to increase self-confidence, presentation and commitment skills, and assimilation to school||Youth in correctional education (46 youth: 21 treatment, 25 comparison)||Nonprofit, government|
aAn asterisk is applied wherever the table reports the highest level of evidence provided by the studies and also indicates that there were mixed results from different studies (some having positive findings and others null findings).
describe the research evidence for academic learning outcomes by type of summer program.
Mandatory Academic Programs
Almost all school districts provide summer programs for high school students who have failed to pass a course, and some require elementary or middle school students who are performing far below grade level and are at risk of being retained in grade to attend summer programming. For these programs, participation and successful completion are mandatory to allow these students to move on to the next grade or to the next course. Studies have found moderate certainty of benefits achieved from mandatory summer school programs that provide reading and math instruction to elementary school students, specifically in improving reading (Matsudaira, 2008) and in mathematics achievement (Mariano and Martorell, 2013; Matusdaira, 2008).
While credit recovery programs are prevalent, we identified only two rigorous evaluations of these programs. One study found suggestive evidence that a high school credit recovery program for English learners increased the number of English language arts courses taken by 12th grade, but it found no evidence that the program improved test scores in English language arts, raised the number of math or science courses taken, or improved on-time graduation rates (Johnson, 2017). Another study tested the efficacy of an online Algebra I course as compared with an in-person Algebra I course. This last study found moderate evidence of the effectiveness of in-person courses relative to online courses, as students taking in-person courses had higher algebra assessment scores, grades, and credit recovery rates than online students. However, the mode of the course did not differentially affect longer-term math performance (Heppen et al., 2016).
Voluntary Academic Programs
Some schools, districts, universities, and community partners offer voluntary academic summer programming to children and youth with the intent of improving students’ success in school, most often in reading and mathematics. These programs usually target students performing below grade level or low-income students considered at greater risk of academic loss during the summer months.
The content and structure of studied programs vary from one another in the following ways:
- By grade level: Some programs targeted certain grade levels (e.g., early elementary, middle grades), while others spanned multiple grade levels (e.g., grades 1–7).
- By duration: Some programs were offered for half-days, although most studied programs ran for a full day. Programs ran anywhere from 3 weeks to 6 weeks over the summer.
- By content: Some programs focused on one academic subject, others spanned multiple subjects, and many (but not all) included nonacademic enrichment activities (e.g., arts or sports).
- By curriculum: Programs tended to have a set curriculum; however, each program offered a different curriculum, and some studies did not describe the curriculum that was used.
Given the variability in programs, study design, and measures, it is unsurprising that in this category some programs demonstrated academic benefits and others did not. We interpret the combined evidence from these studies to suggest that voluntary summer learning programs have the potential to benefit children and youth but are not guaranteed to do so.
There is suggestive evidence that a voluntary pre-K program improved participants’ early literacy skills (Edmonds et al., 2009). However, another study of this type of program found no benefits for early literacy or mathematics (Story, 2008).
Studies of voluntary reading programs targeted to students performing below grade level or low-income students provide moderate evidence of benefits in reading achievement (Borman et al., 2009; Schacter and Jo, 2005; Zvoch and Stevens, 2013), while other studied programs provide suggestive evidence of benefits (Cleary, 2002; Luftig, 2003; Waters, 2004). However, a number of studies of reading programs found no benefits for participating children and youth (Dynia et al., 2015; Story, 2008). None of the reading programs that were shorter in duration (e.g., half-day, 3-week programs) was found to be effective.
We found both moderate and suggestive evidence of effective voluntary mathematics programs for middle and high school students (Bowens and Warren, 2016; Stewart, 2017). Additionally, a study of a voluntary STEM program provides suggestive evidence that the middle school youth who participated had stronger attendance in the following school year in one cohort, although those findings were not replicated in other cohorts (Mac Iver and Mac Iver, 2015).
We find evidence that multi-subject voluntary programs can benefit children and youth. There is suggestive evidence that such programs yield benefits in reading and/or mathematics achievement (Betts et al., 2005; Chaplin and Capizzano, 2006; Concentric Research and Evaluation, 2018), although some studies found no evidence of effectiveness (Bakle, 2010). A longitudinal, multidistrict RCT was conducted to evaluate 5-week voluntary learning programs that included academic instruction and enrichment activities. It found conclusive evidence of short-term benefits in mathemat-
ics when children returned to school in the fall, although the initial gains the treatment group experienced in the fall did not persist at the same levels in the spring. The study also provides suggestive evidence that highlights the importance of strong attendance: among students with high attendance, mathematics gains seen in the fall were also found in the spring, when state assessments were done, and among students who attended a second summer those with high attendance outperformed control group students in mathematics and reading in the fall and spring. The quality of instruction (focused on clear instruction, on-task behavior, and teachers’ ensuring that all students understood the material) was also correlated with language arts achievement (Augustine et al., 2016).
At-home learning programs are compelling options for policy makers and funders because they tend to be lower in cost than in-person programs for helping students gain or maintain academic skills over the summer. We found conclusive and moderate evidence of benefits from this type of program. Only one program focused on mathematics, a 9-week program for middle school students that thematically linked to the Boston Red Sox baseball team and covered key mathematical concepts from the prior school year. This program produced suggestive evidence of benefits in mathematics achievement (Nelson, 2014).
The other type of at-home learning programs studied were reading programs offered to elementary school students. These programs, which provide children with high-interest books at their own reading level, have been provided both through book fairs by sending books directly home to families and through book mobiles that visit rural communities. We have conclusive and moderate evidence of benefits from this type or program, although an equal number of studies of at-home reading programs show no evidence of effectiveness. Effective at-home reading programs for elementary students often occurred over multiple summers (Allington et al., 2010; Stein, 2017) and/or were scaffolded by teachers prior to or during the summer program (Kim and White, 2008; Kim et al., 2016; Melosh, 2003). For instance, in one program students participated in a school-year book fair and voluntary summer reading for three summers before the program showed an effect on their state reading scores (Allington et al., 2010). For the Project Reads program, there is evidence of effectiveness for the version of the program in which scaffolded instruction was provided by teachers prior to the summer (Kim and White, 2008; Kim et al., 2016); programs without this scaffolding have not been associated with positive outcomes (Kim, 2006, 2007).
In addition to providing benefits to youth safety, we find conclusive evidence that New York City’s summer youth employment program, which targeted low-income youth, resulted in improved youth engagement with school and participation in and performance on academic assessments (Leos-Urbel et al., 2003; Schwartz et al., 2014). There is also suggestive evidence that youth in correctional education who participated in a 3-week summer theater program had higher overall GPAs than nonparticipants (Coronado, 2000)
RESEARCH-BASED BEST PRACTICES
In sum, the research base demonstrates that summer programming can measurably benefit youth across multiple domains, although it is not guaranteed to do so. Because the overall evidence base is fragmented and not representative of all programs available to children and youth over the summer, it is particularly important to understand what factors increase the quality and effectiveness of summer programs. In the following, we draw out key themes that emerge from the literature we reviewed and the testimony heard by the committee.
Intentional Design to Meet Student Needs and Desired Outcomes
As discussed earlier, programs designed to meet specific students’ needs and that link their content to desired student outcomes appear to be particularly successful. For instance, programs designed to address the social and emotional needs of children and youth with disabilities demonstrated moderate or suggestive evidence of effectiveness. This suggests that the efficacy of these programs might be tied to the intentional targeting of the program to a population that has been identified as in need of such a program (McCombs et al., 2019). Similarly, meta-analyses of out-of-school time programs have found that programs designed to enhance students’ social and emotional skills were successful in doing so, while programs that were not intentionally addressing these skills tended to be ineffective in improving these skills (Durlak et al., 2011).
Based on testimony provided to the committee, we identified cultural responsiveness as a key component of intentional programming. Programs that are not responsive to students’ cultural values, beliefs, and backgrounds are, at a minimum, unlikely to attract and retain youth, and at worst could do harm by inflicting offensive beliefs or actions on students.
In the context of summer, and concerning out-of-school time programs broadly, cultural responsiveness requires considering both the staff practices
that directly influence youth experiences (e.g., behavior management strategies, expectations for youth, and interaction styles) and the organizational structures (e.g., program communications, written rules and policies) that both directly and indirectly influence youth access to and experiences in programs (Simpkins et al., 2017). For example, program structures should connect to content that is relevant to youth’s lives in culturally meaningful ways, and in their interactions with youth staff should support opportunities to explore youth’s cultural identity. These approaches are relevant for summer experiences as well.
Research also clearly demonstrates that students need to attend summer learning programs to benefit from them (Augustine et al., 2016; Borman et al., 2005; Borman and Dowling, 2006; Kilanowski and Gordon, 2015; McCombs et al., 2009). For instance, in a study of an academic voluntary summer learning programs, the authors found that students who attended the summer 2013 program for at least 20 days benefited in mathematics in the fall of 2013 relative to comparison-group students, and those effects persisted through spring 2014. After the summer 2014 program, high attenders outperformed the comparison group in both mathematics and language arts in the fall and spring. These benefits were also demonstrated on state academic assessments in spring (Augustine et al., 2016).
Summer programs should be of sufficient duration to meet the goals established for the program. Duration seems particularly important for academic programs. None of the programs we reviewed that lasted 3 weeks or less resulted in benefits for children and youth. For voluntary academic programs, recent research suggests programs should last at least 5 weeks so that they can provide sufficient content to demonstrably improve student achievement (Augustine et al., 2016). There are also indications that greater benefits accrue across multiple summers of participation (Augustine et al., 2016); for example, a study of Horizons National, a multisummer program, found academic benefits that accrued after multiple summers of participation (Concentric Research and Evaluation, 2018).
The committee was also charged with understanding whether there are lessons and examples from other nations that may have implications for the United States. To respond to this charge, the committee commissioned a
paper on international summertime experiences. A review of the published literature highlighted international examples of summertime programming and offered some potentially promising practices and lessons for the United States (see Box 4-2) (Pulizzi, 2019).
Several limitations were noted, however, in the review of this global summertime literature, limitations that also apply to findings from the United States. The international programs that were evaluated were often stand-alone activities and lacked follow-on support (Davies et al., forthcoming). The evaluation time frames typically were short and did not
extend beyond a single summer, resulting in uncertainty about longer-term outcomes and sustained changes. In addition, the measurement of international program outcomes was frequently pre/post intervention after a single summer experience, and program evaluation designs were generally not structured to account for other factors that could affect the measured outcomes, reducing confidence in causal attributions.
Based on our review of the outcomes and the best-practice literature, the committee reached a number of conclusions that have implications for policy and practice.
CONCLUSION 4-1: Summer programs can be designed to promote children’s and youth’s safety, physical and mental health, social and emotional development, and academic learning, but they must be targeted to the needs of participants, have programming linked to desired outcomes, be of sufficient duration, and promote strong attendance.
CONCLUSION 4-2: Summer employment is an important and effective summer experience for middle and late adolescents and is effective in reducing crime and improving academic outcomes.
CONCLUSION 4-3: The research evidence on summer program effectiveness does not represent the totality of experiences and programs available to children and youth over the summer and, therefore, cannot be the sole basis upon which to make decisions regarding appropriate programming for children and youth.
CONCLUSION 4-4: Research is needed on the impact of summer programs on the developmental trajectories of children and youth over the course of multiple years. The current literature examines one-off programs but does not address the effect of the multiple experiences children and youth have over the course of their childhood.
CONCLUSION 4-5: Research is needed on different types of programs, replication studies in different contexts, and programs serving underserved populations. This last need includes programs serving children who are American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, immigrant, migrant or refugee, homeless, system-involved, LGBTQ, and those with special health care or developmental needs.
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