Does Summer School Work?

Summer-SchoolAhhh summer school…that interesting beast that’s actually not quite summer and not quite school.  Undoubtedly many of us have taught or led a summer school over the years and the question that I heard many educators ask is: Does summer school work?  

The answer of course is: it depends.

First of all let’s look at the why behind summer school, the problem it’s seeking to solve.  

Summer enrichment programs attempt to both provide additional time for students who are struggling and prevent summer loss of learning – which disproportionally affects low-income students.  Miller (2007) found that during the school year, low- and high-income students progress at similar rates, as measured by standardized tests, but during the summer, more-advantaged students continue to make learning gains while less-advantaged students level off or decline. Alexander, Entwisle and Olson (2007) studied 325 Baltimore students and found that during the summer, high-SES students gained a cumulative 47 reading test-score points while lower-SES students lost 2 points.  In addition, a 2014 study found that summer learning loss is greater in math than in reading (Kropp, 20007).  What’s more the loss of learning is cumulative over time and thus adds “significantly to achievement gaps” (US Department of Education, 2013, p. 32).

These findings may be connected with the fact that high-income families have the resources to support their children in attending private summer enrichment activities. Over forty percent of the higher-income families that Miller studied sent their children to summer camp while just over five percent of low-income families did the same (Miller, 2007).

So can summer school be part of the school?

Short answer: it depends on the quality of the summer program.   A 2000 meta-analysis conducted by Cooper, Charlton, Valentine, and Muhlenbruck that reviewed the impact of summer school in 93 studies showed that summer school had a positive impact on student achievement. McCombs (2011) echoes these findings writing:

The combined evidence from these studies suggests that all of these types of summer learning programs can mitigate summer learning losses and even lead to achievement gains. Moreover, longitudinal studies conclude that the effects of summer learning programs endure for at least two years after the student has engaged in the summer program (xv).

McCombs (2011), however,  cautions that not all summer programming leads to positive results for students.  According to her research, the most effective summer programs meet the following criteria:

  • smaller class sizes (less than 20 students)
  • involving parents
  • providing individualized instruction
  • maximizing students’ attendance
  • ensuring students receive high-quality instruction
  • aligning the school year and summer curricula
  • including content beyond remediation
  • finally tracking effectiveness

Cooper’s (2000) research supports these criteria and emphasizes the importance of individualized instruction during summer school programming.

So if you are thinking taking part in summer school this year, think about what steps your program can make to ensure your program is making a difference.


Alexander, K., Entwisle, D. and Steffel, L. (2007).  “Lasting Consequences of the Summer
Learning Gap.” American Sociological Review, 72(2), 167-180. doi:10.1177/000312240707200202

Cooper, H. (2001). “Summer School: Research-based Recommendations for Policymakers.”
Serve Policy Brief.  Retrieved May 10, 2015 from

Cooper, H., Charlton K., Valentine, JC., and Muhlenbruck L. (2000). “Making the Most of
Summer School: a Meta-analytic and Narrative Review.” Monographs of the Society for
Research in Child Development.  65(1), 119-27. Retrieved May 10, 2015 from

Kropp, L. (2014). “Math? Yes, Math. In Summer” School Library Journal.  60(3),  22.

McCombs, JS. et al (2011). Making Summer Count: How Summer Programs Can Boost
Children’s Learning. Rand. Retrieved May 3, 2015 from:

Miller, B. (2007). “The Learning Season: The Untapped Power of Summer to Advance Student
Achievement.”  Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Retrieved May 6, 2015 from

U S. Department of Education. (2013). For Each and Every Child – A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence. Improving School Finance and Efficiency. (p. 17-20). Retrieved May 6, 2015 from


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