Why Are K-12 Students Not Showing Up for Summer Programming?

As school districts continue to grapple with pandemic learning loss, a new survey finds students who are eligible for summer learning opportunities aren’t being placed into programs. (Photo by RDNE Stock project)

by Aziah Siid

Study after study has found that summer programming, along with high-intensity tutoring,  is  the most effective way to help K-12 students recover from pandemic-era learning loss. It’s deemed so important the Biden administration has made quality summer learning a goal for school systems nationwide

But a new survey finds that, although more than 80% of all school districts offered summer learning in 2023, less than half of eligible students took advantage of programs that could help them catch up. At the same time, the survey found fewer than one in five school districts’ largest elementary summer programs met the minimum recommended hours of academic instruction, and about 40% of schools expect funding cuts for this year’s summer classes.

“To reach a majority of academically struggling students, districts’ summer programs will need to significantly increase enrollment. This is no simple task,” according to the study conducted by RAND Corporation, a nonprofit public policy think tank. “Even the largest summer programs that were expressly for students performing below grade level or students who needed to recover academic credits still enrolled less than half of eligible students.”

RAND surveyed 1,167 school districts’ summer programs two years after students returned to in-person instruction. School districts are the leading providers of summer programming for K-12 students, which can include anything from the sciences, arts, or even the opportunity to advance in SAT preparation or financial literacy.

They examined districts that offered summer programming and for which students, along with whether programs were run solely in-house or in collaboration with external partners. RAND also looked  at school districts’ largest elementary and secondary programs, in terms of their eligibility criteria, length, and academic and nonacademic offerings. And it looked at how districts approached their academic instruction during summertime like how many hours of academic instruction the programs provided, who provided the instruction, and how lesson plans were determined. Among RAND’s findings:

  • Eighty-one percent of districts offered summer programs in 2023, typically to both elementary and secondary grade levels.
  • Every urban district surveyed indicated offering programming in summer 2023, and these districts typically offered four or more summer programs.
  • Districts’ largest summer programs were typically free of charge, ran for four weeks, offered about four hours of academic instruction per day, and hired district teachers for at least some, if not all, of academic instruction.

But more troubling findings emerged — including the fact that “the largest summer programs typically enrolled less than half of eligible students,” according to the survey. 

“This was true regardless of whether programs had eligibility restrictions.” 

At the same time, most of the programs weren’t up to standard: only about 20% of districts’ largest elementary summer programs “met the minimum recommended hours of academic instruction found to academically benefit students,” according to the survey. 

And at a time when the extra federal funding schools received during the pandemic is running out, 4 in 10 districts expect to have less money on hand for summer programming, which could mean cuts in classroom offering. 

Given that a majority of schools offer summer programming, now is the time to lean into summer programming, according to the survey. 

The nation “could choose a different path by building on the momentum already achieved — instead of scaling back — by improving the offerings and the enrollment rate among those students who need these programs the most,” according to the survey.