How do you choose among all the remedial, enrichment, public and private summer learning programs? How do you know if the summer learning program you’ve chosen is right for your child? Will summer school help your child achieve better results on state standardized tests? These guidelines will help you find the best program that will be a good fit for your child.

Benefits of summer learning programs

Summer learning programs offset “summer slide,” the tendency of students to regress academically when they are not in school. On average, students lose one month’s worth of skills on achievement test scores during the summer vacation. All students tend to fall behind in math and spelling because they have fewer opportunities to practice these skills during the summer. Students from low-income families are more likely to lose ground in reading than their more affluent counterparts. That’s because students in middle- and high-income families are more likely to be exposed to books and reading programs during the summer.

A 2007 study concludes that this difference in summer reading may account for two-thirds of the reading achievement gap between ninth graders from low- and high-income families.

In recent years 14 states have passed laws to expand summer school opportunities to help students meet state standards. A survey of the country’s 100 largest school districts found that 59 percent offered summer programs.

Research has shown that summer learning opportunities overall have a positive impact on student achievement. A review of the research, conducted by Harris Cooper, found some interesting results:

  • Enrichment programs are similar to remediation programs in their positive effect on raising student achievement.
  • Remediation programs have more impact when the program is small — a small number of schools or classes in a small community.
  • Summer programs that require parent involvement have a greater positive effect than programs that do not require parents to be involved.
  • Remedial programs have a greater positive effect on students in the early primary grades and in high school than in middle school.
  • Requiring attendance does not make a program more effective than a voluntary program.
  • Attending a summer program once can’t make up for accumulated years of learning loss.
  • Summer school programs are not a “cure-all” for low student achievement but can be a significant part of an integrated school district program to raise student achievement levels.

Choosing a summer learning program

Which is better — remedial or enrichment, voluntary, or mandatory?

Many school districts are now requiring mandatory summer school, particularly for students who fail state standardized tests. There is significant debate, however, among education researchers as to the long-term benefit for students of mandatory programs. Students may gain a few points on the state tests, but they may not carry that benefit forward in future years.

Most educators agree that innovative approaches are needed to prepare students to raise their achievement levels on state tests. “Summer school can’t be the same old summer school. The extra support during the school year can’t be what didn’t work the first time around,” said Thomas Payzant, former superintendent of the Boston public schools, in a report produced by the Council of Chief State School Officers titled Summer Learning Opportunities in High-Poverty Schools. The report profiled five high-poverty schools that had special programs (including summer learning programs) that contributed to improving student achievement. Successful programs were academically focused and included enrichment activities that gave students the opportunity to practice the skills they had learned in school. Providing a safe, structured environment also served the needs of working parents for quality childcare.

Questions to ask

Because of financial constraints, many school districts only offer remedial programs to elementary and middle school students who have not achieved at high enough levels on state tests. Some districts do, however, offer both remedial and enrichment programs. Check with your district, and local community college, as well as private programs, to find out what is available in your community.

“I think parents should look for small class size in summer school programs whether they are enrichment or remediation,” says third grade teacher Linda Eisinger, Missouri’s Teacher of the Year in 2005. “Also, check the qualifications of the teacher. Was there a lot of competition for the summer school jobs? Often summer school falls to teachers who really don’t want to be there, do little preparation, and just see it as a paycheck to go on vacation. We often have fierce competition for our jobs in my district so therefore the best are hired. You want teachers who will follow a curriculum and state standards just as they would during a school year. Enrichment should also meet a standard and not just be some ‘fun’ theme unit.”

When checking out summer programs for your child, here are some questions to ask:

  • How many students will be in the class?
  • Will my child receive individual attention?
  • Will the curriculum be the same as that taught during the school year or will it be different?
  • Who are the teachers and what are their credentials? Is the hiring process competitive?
  • Will my child have opportunities to practice reading, writing, math and spelling?
  • Will the summer school curriculum follow the state standards?
  • Is attendance mandatory?
  • How will my child be evaluated?
  • Are there opportunities for parent involvement?
  • If we are planning a family trip during summer school, is it permissible for my child to be absent for a few days?
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Updated: June 5, 2018