Stopping the Summer Learning Loss

The so-called summer learning loss is well known in the education community. By the end of a 3-month vacation, students’ skills are an average of 1 month behind where they were when the school year ended. Moreover, low-income students often experience greater summer learning loss, and the cumulative effect of this phenomenon can contribute to an achievement gap between low-income and higher-income students.

Extended learning programs offer a way to mitigate summer learning loss. They can reinforce concepts students didn’t master in the previous school year or introduce new ones before the upcoming year. Researchers have reviewed the characteristics of effective summer learning programs and some of the challenges in implementation. Studies from the RAND Corporation and the Harvard Family Research Project outline some of the steps education leaders can take to ensure summer learning programs boost student achievement.

Recruit highly qualified staff. Experienced teachers from local schools are well qualified to lead academic activities and may best know students and their learning needs. High school and college students, parents, and community members can serve as staff or volunteers, and they bring a range of experience and skills to program activities. Summer program leaders will also want to allocate resources for meaningful professional development. For free online professional development resources for extended learning staff, see our Afterschool Training Toolkit and accompanying instructor’s guides.

Student attendance and engagement are crucial. This principle is so obvious it’s often overlooked: to benefit from summer learning programs, students need to enroll and regularly participate in engaging enrichment activities. Plan and promote your program early, before families have made other plans for the summer. Considering the needs of working parents by offering day-long programming may also boost student attendance.

High-quality instruction and individualized connections with students will also boost attendance and engagement. Staff who work with the same students during the school year can build on relationships during the summer program. Offer a variety of activities that address different learning needs and try to make sure that each activity has an appropriate staff-to-youth ratio.

Engage family and community members. When parents are involved in their children’s education, the students are more likely to experience improved attendance and higher academic achievement. Hosting events like parent orientation sessions and open houses that feature student work or performances can pique parent interest, and scheduling these events to accommodate parents’ schedules and providing on-site child care for family events can encourage attendance. In addition to involving parents, consider reaching out to community-based organizations that offer programs and activities to complement your summer learning program. For a summary of research on how family and community engagement can impact student achievement, see our popular research synthesis A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement.

Form strong relationships with schools. Schools staff can help identify and recruit students to participate in programs and also provide crucial academic information. They can also help ensure that summer learning activities are aligned with standards and curricula. As the summer learning program concludes, remember to share information about students’ summer progress with their schools.

Summer vacation often evokes images of relaxation and fun. An effective summer learning program can ensure that students still enjoy those aspects of their summer break while returning to school in the fall ready for the challenges of the new school year.

McCombs, J. S., Augustine, C. H., Schwartz, H. L., Bodilly, S. J., McInnis, B., Lichter, D., & Cross, A. B. (2011). Making summer count: How summer programs can boost children’s learning. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. Retrieved from

Wimer, C., & Gunther, R. (2006). Summer success: Challenges and strategies in creating quality academically focused summer programs. Issues and Opportunities in Out-of-School Time Evaluation, No. 9. Retrieved from