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Success in school linked to summer learning

Program may close achievement gap; Meeting to focus on new strategies

Boston school officials and nonprofit leaders will huddle Monday to mull strategies for closing the achievement gap that afflicts children from low-income families.

Initial data from an ongoing study conducted in Boston and four other urban communities suggest that summer programs can help elementary school children reduce learning losses that typically occur during vacations and could create a more level playing field.

“The research says that low-income kids learn at about the same rate during the school year as high-income kids, but learning loss during the summer is greater for poorer kids, and the effect is cumulative,” said Chris Smith, executive director of Boston After School & Beyond, which works with Boston Public Schools to organize the local Summer Learning Project.


Mayor Martin J. Walsh said the new data demonstrate the success of summer programs supported by Boston schools.

“Student performance is a top priority and high quality summer learning opportunities ensure that students are grade-level ready and on track for high school graduation,” Walsh said in a statement Sunday.

“These research results show that we know how to keep students learning year-round and confirm Boston’s status as a national leader in summer learning,” he continued.

Monday’s summit will include about 175 representatives from 90 organizations, Smith said, and he hopes it will help recruit new partners to expand summer learning opportunities for children and encourage the adoption of a shared curriculum and common metrics for measuring success.

It is easier to compare and learn from achievements when different programs can make apples-to-apples comparisons, Smith said.

Organizations participating include the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston, the USS Constitution Museum, Hale Reservation in Westwood, the Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center, and the YMCA of Greater Boston.

Smith said that each summer program begins its morning with the same instruction but in the afternoon incorporates hands-on activities unique to its site, giving children a chance to put their lessons into action.


Interactive learning, such as students going on a field trip to a salt marsh after reading about wetland ecology, “makes the content that much more meaningful, and summer really affords the opportunity to do that,” Smith said.

The national study of summer programs is conducted by the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan organization that researches public policy issues, and funded by the Wallace Foundation, which supports improvements in education for disadvantaged children.

It shows that students who participated for a single summer had higher math test scores than students who applied but weren’t randomly selected by lottery, and that scores improved with additional learning time.

Smith said the direct comparisons between participants and the control group provide valuable data.

“You do these programs, and it’s rare that you get such a rigorous look at results, and we were really impressed by the growth in math,” he said.

John McDonough, interim superintendent in Boston, said in a statement that collaborations with community partners allow the school system to advance its academic agenda while allowing children to have fun with learning.

“This approach allows teachers to practice new approaches by helping students develop skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, and perseverance,” McDonough said.

Summer students did not show an overall difference in reading comprehension or vocabulary skills, but their reading scores improved with better teaching quality and more orderly English classes, and when their summer reading teachers had just taught either third or fourth grade.


The national study looks at more than 5,600 students selected at random to spend, or not spend, two summers in voluntary, large-scale, five- or six-week programs led by public school districts in Boston; Dallas; Pittsburgh; Rochester, N.Y.; and Duval County, Fla.

In Boston, 957 total students participated. 42 percent were black; 41 percent were Hispanic; 6 percent were Asian; and 8 percent were white.

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com.