MDRC in the News

Proof Points: Slim Research Evidence for Summer School

The Hechinger Report

03/2021

Summer school may seem like a common sense way to help children make up for the months of lost school time during the COVID-19 pandemic. Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg urged President Joe Biden to push every school in the country to stay open this summer in a March 2021 Washington Post opinion piece. Governors around the country from Virginia to California are endorsing summer school, as has the powerful teachers union leader Randi Weingarten. More than $1.2 billion of the $1.9 trillion Covid relief package signed into law on March 11 is specifically earmarked for summer school and many policymakers are urging that billions more in federal and state funds be spent to open schools this summer. 

There’s just one problem. Research studies done before the pandemic show that summer school usually doesn’t accomplish its purpose of raising reading or math achievement. 

 “Generally, summer programs are not effective because they don’t really engage young people and they’re not run well,” said Jean B. Grossman, an economist at MDRC, a nonprofit research organization, and Princeton University, who has evaluated summer school programs. “It looks like summer school should help but the research is a mixed bag.”

In a 2020 synthesis of summer school studies, researchers calculated that the benefit to students tends to be close to zero in math or reading. This meta-analysis is a draft paper, meaning it has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but is the most recent review of the evidence…..

…..Unfortunately, there are few randomized control trials, the gold standard in research, for summer school. Grossman conducted one in 2011-14 in which middle school students were randomly assigned to a five-week summer program with trained instructors using good curricula for reading and math lessons in the mornings and fun afternoon activities such as sports, music, theater and art. Again, persuading kids to enroll was a problem.

Even though attendance for those who did enroll was rather good in this study, the academic results were still disappointing. The program was billed as a way to “accelerate” learning but students learned at the same pace as they did at school. The gains for the five-week summer program were small and not statistically significant compared to kids who didn’t attend……

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