How States Can Make Summer Learning Programs Meaningful and Open to All Students

Davis: It took an infusion of federal funding and a national call to action to expand states' role in summer learning. 4 ways to sustain the momentum.

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Recent educational history has recast summer from a time of respite between academic years to an evidence-based opportunity for learning and enrichment that can have cumulative academic and social-emotional benefits. But access to quality summer programming has been inconsistent across the country, particularly for students with the greatest needs. While some districts have robust summer offerings that include partnerships with local community organizations, others, like those in rural settings, have fewer resources and leaner offerings for students. 

New evidence, published with my colleagues from Westat, suggests states can play a much more robust role in facilitating equitable access to summer learning. Traditionally, states have limited their involvement administering and regulating the use of federal funding, with programming driven largely by local providers, including schools, districts and community-based organizations. As with so many things, this changed dramatically during the pandemic. 

In spring 2021, there was a national call to expand summer learning and enrichment programming, driven by COVID-related disruptions to education and anticipated losses in student growth. This call to action, fueled by over $120 billion in American Rescue Plan funding, positioned states to take on a more substantive role. They were not only required to pass the federal funds on to districts, but also to reserve 1% of them for summer learning programs. 

We wondered: How did states throughout the nation, within a relatively short time frame, respond at this critical point in time? 

Through our analysis of rescue fund plans from the 50 states and Washington, D.C., and interviews with education officials from 37 states, we found that states defined a new role for themselves in supporting summer programming that went well beyond just channeling funds to districts. For example:

  • Thirty states articulated their intentions or objectives for summer learning in 2021. These consistently related to expanding access to quality programming to more students, particularly those with the greatest needs and, traditionally, fewer opportunities. Sixteen states developed entirely new policies to shape how summer learning was designed, staffed and delivered.
  • Many states set priorities for how summer programming was designed and evaluated. In 40 of 51 (78%) American Rescue Fund plans, states requested that districts include social-emotional elements in their programming. Twenty of 51 (41%) requested that districts focus on academics. In 36 of 51 (70%) plans, states required districts and community-based organizations to collect data and report on student participation in, and/or outcomes of, their summer programs.
  • In eight states, legislatures took actions that may shape future summer learning opportunities, passing new policies related to how funding is awarded, what kinds of programs are eligible and the structure and/or content of summer programs. For example, North Carolina required every school district to offer 30 days, or 150 hours, of in-person instruction in summer 2021, prioritizing access to students deemed “at risk of retention” based on their 2020-21 academic performance; and Tennessee’s Learning Loss Remediation and Student Acceleration Act required districts to offer in-person learning loss remediation and student acceleration, including summer camps, and to prioritize registration for students with the greatest needs according to approved reading and math screening assessments. 

When called upon, states envisioned a role they could play in summer learning that included and extended beyond providing financing. For instance, many states engaged new partners, such as the YMCA, and set new priorities for program implementation and evaluation. And in some cases, they developed legislation that can solidify a foundation for ongoing statewide support for summer learning opportunities, even as federal pandemic relief funding is set to expire. 

To sustain this momentum, we recommend states consider four strategies to strengthen their role in summer learning:

  • Define or refine a vision for summer programming that is both meaningful and feasible;
  • Understand and use funding, partnering, implementation and evaluation policies as levers to shape how summer learning is enacted throughout the state;
  • Start planning no later than January, and
  • Develop a communications strategy to make sure districts and families understand the benefits of summer learning.

The need for learning recovery is no longer a hypothesis. It is now a researched reality that will require long-term and sustained investment and commitment, with summer learning being an important and evidence-based factor. 

It took an unprecedented infusion of federal funding and a national call to action to catalyze an expanded state role in summer learning. Now, states are uniquely suited to help sustain the momentum of this strategy nationwide. States have the ability to fund summer programming, influence its design, prioritize underserved students and provide districts with evidence-based resources and guidance. Additionally, states can offer districts political cover as federal funding winds down and they face pressure to direct funding to competing priorities. 

Every young person should have access to high-quality, enriching summer learning experiences, and we now know that states are important players in bringing that vision to life.

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