Effective Strategies to Prevent Summer Learning Loss

5 min read

| By Gale Staff |

During the summer months, when most K-12 schools are not in session, students across the country experience a phenomenon known as the summer slide or summer learning loss. Understandably, young learners might only progress academically with structured classes. However, data suggests that students actually regress in their educational achievement, losing as much as one month of academic gains over the summer. This loss is a significant setback that educators, parents, and community members can help address.

Some education stakeholders advocate for a shortened summer vacation, integrating additional short breaks throughout the traditional academic year. Yet, there are some important reasons why summer break exists. Extended summer recess allows families time to travel and bond and it provides teachers valuable time off for professional development, academic planning, and much-needed relaxation. School facilities save money by avoiding high air conditioning bills during hot summer months. Summer break is a special part of American culture; some argue it’s vital to the country’s economy.

Regardless, summer learning loss is a genuine concern exacerbated by pandemic closures and ongoing teacher shortages. So, short of shrinking summer vacation, what can we do to help mitigate the summer slide?

Not all students experience learning loss, and not all subjects are equally affected. With limited resources available, interventions against the summer slide should target the most affected student groups and subjects. A 2017 study from the Brookings Institution suggests several key conclusions:

  • Higher grade levels are more affected.
  • Summer learning loss is steeper for mathematics.
  • Lower-income students are more vulnerable to learning loss, particularly in reading.

The last point is critical, as any summer learning initiative should prioritize access and inclusivity to benefit those most affected by learning setbacks. Economically disadvantaged students need more resources during summer break. Low-income, working parents may have less time and less expendable income for camps and extracurricular activities. Those implementing preventative learning loss programs should be aware of potential barriers. Before executing summer initiatives, administrators can communicate with families to better understand community limitations to summer school attendance and continued learning.

Most U.S. school districts offer a summer school program, but these options aren’t necessarily successful for several reasons. First, summer programs can be costly for schools. During the pandemic, some schools were able to leverage Covid relief funding to make summer programs more robust and cost-free for families. However, most of this funding has dried up, meaning schools might have fewer dedicated resources for summer learning. Second, summer school programs aren’t mandatory on the whole. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 15% of K–12 students participate in academic summer programs, and consistent attendance is generally poor. For those who do attend, engagement is a real issue—summer school is a hard sell when students would rather be outside with their friends.

So, to make summer programs as effective as possible, schools should consider implementing a few meaningful changes:

  • Summer school administrators must intentionally train their summer instructors on a proven curriculum and strategies for creating more engaging lesson plans and activities (such as dance classes, field trips, and college visits). Summer school should be fun, not simply an extension of the academic year.
  • The Brookings Institution report highlights the importance of research-backed instruction, specifically citing the effectiveness of the National Reading Panel’s best practices for improved reading ability.
  • Schools should distribute outreach about summer programs early so families can plan accordingly.
  • Finally, summer classes should last as long as a traditional school day to remove possible transportation and childcare barriers for working families.

Home-based summer learning strategies might be a better fit, especially for schools with funding challenges or other barriers to successful summer school implementation. Remote options can help improve access, particularly for students with limited transportation. Online sessions also provide students with consistent classwork while saving the district money on utility costs. However, experts recommend that districts structure online summer school programs like in-person coursework. Abbreviated programs prove less effective.

The more significant takeaway for successful home-based summer learning is family involvement, and there are several easy strategies families might use. The Brookings Institution report recommends programs like Harvard University’s READS, which provides students with free, customized books and reading comprehension activities throughout the summer. To optimize the success of these programs, teachers can dedicate the last few weeks of the school year to guided instruction on home-based learning initiatives. Even sending parents text-based resources and encouragement throughout the summer can invigorate student learning. Summer initiatives that lean on families can be just as productive as costly summer school programs.

Extracurricular student-facing programs, such as summer camps provide a unique strategy for combatting learning loss; camp planners can integrate academic components into everyday activities, combining intentional learning with summertime fun. Counselors merge math and science with nature walks. Ghost stories around the campfire introduce new vocabulary and reading components. Camp attendees can keep creative writing or reflective journals.

Summer school administrators can learn from and encourage the summer camp experience when possible. If summer school opportunities are lacking, educators might direct families to effective summer camps in the area or provide a list of those that offer sliding-scale tuition. Administrators might even consider allocating funding toward student summer camp tuition. The bottom line is that interactive summer camps that stimulate student learning should be available to all children.

Most states don’t adhere to a strict three-month vacation during summer, and some districts have pivoted to year-round schooling with small breaks interspersed throughout. Advocates of this schedule cite better learning outcomes and fewer instances of student burnout, though not all experts agree on these conclusions. Whatever one’s stance on summer break, data demonstrates that summer learning loss is a very real concern, and educators and stakeholders can implement meaningful changes to help curb the slide.

Sign up for Gale’s dedicated school newsletter for more ideas on preventing learning loss, as well as general teaching tips, webinars, lesson plan ideas, and more. This monthly resource can help you spend less time preparing for class and more energy focusing on your students.

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