Playing a New Role, States Set Visions for Summer Learning

November 3, 2023

To counter pandemic-related learning loss, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) in March 2021 called on state education agencies (SEAs) and school districts to deliver high-quality K-12 summer learning programs on a large scale. Although summer programming has traditionally been conceived at the local level, SEAs now have a role in influencing summer plans through the American Rescue Plan (ARP). ARP provided SEAs with funding needed to contribute to a nationwide rollout of summer programming at a time of intense academic and social emotional need for students.

How states tackled this challenge is revealed in A National Call to Action for Summer Learning: How Did States Respond? (PDF), the second of three planned reports released by Westat’s National Summer Learning and Enrichment Study (NSLES), funded by The Wallace Foundation. This report is based on an analysis of ARP spending plans submitted by the 50 states and Washington, DC, and on interviews with education leaders on the frontlines of this effort. It describes how SEAs:

  • navigated the task of creating and implementing high-caliber summer learning programs in a short time span,
  • influenced district planning, and
  • developed strategies to fortify their role in continuing such programs.

This report also dives into how states met multiple challenges and offers education leaders a framework for shaping summer learning programs in the future.

Starting with the Vision

Most SEAs established a vision for summer learning and enrichment programs in their states, then used four policy levers to shape how it would be enacted. These included how funds were allocated to school districts, if and how partner organizations were engaged, how programs should be designed, and how they should be evaluated. How the states used these levers is described in the report.

Summer Learning Challenges

Implementing summer learning programs was not without challenges. The time frame was daunting, as some SEAs had only 8 weeks to plan a statewide approach for the summer of 2021. Insufficient staffing was another obstacle to fulfilling program needs, and engaging partners for some states was a difficult enterprise. Especially difficult was the challenge of having to conquer the long-held perception that summer learning was a punitive measure.

 Lessons Learned

“One significant lesson we learned is that SEAs can play a key role in summer learning,” says John Hitchcock, PhD, a Westat Associate Director for Education Studies who served as Principal Investigator on NSLES. “Most SEAs demonstrated that when called to address a national learning challenge, they could quickly assume their new role and responsibilities and contribute to robust summer learning plans.”

Allison Crean Davis, PhD, a Westat Vice President for Education Studies, who served as Project Director on the NSLES, explains that although this role for states was brand new in 2021, many took the opportunity to set a vision for summer learning that was informed by student needs and community input.  Consistent access to summer learning opportunities was a common emphasis, as was the integration of social emotional learning after a period of pandemic-induced isolation for both students and teachers.   

Were the Programs Successful?

“In our national survey, district leaders across the country told us their programs were successful and met the needs of their students, but additional research is needed to back up these claims” says Hitchcock. “

Crean Davis emphasizes that summer learning impacts are greatest when students attend 5- to 6-week programs that combine at least 3 hours of daily academics with “camp-like” enrichment opportunities, such as activities in the arts, sports, or outdoor adventuring. Better understanding the link between high-quality summer programming and student benefits in this post-pandemic moment needs to be a priority for the future.”

Can Summer Learning Become a Staple of Education?

“Summer learning should be a staple of education,” says Crean Davis, “especially for vulnerable students who can benefit most from additional learning and enrichment opportunities. But with ARP funds winding down, it’s important for states to determine what worked, who benefited most, and how they can sustain the momentum. This might mean leveraging partners in new ways, providing greater guidance and support for designing quality summer programs, and prioritizing how they can help districts staff and grow these programs?

Hitchcock adds that “we need to think about summer as a time where opportunities to enrich student learning are an important part of education and give students the chance to stretch their minds, explore career pathways, and enjoy new experiences without the pressure of tests.”

Westat’s first report on the NSLES, National Call to Action for Summer Learning: How Did School Districts Respond? (PDF), published in December 2022, focused on the districts’ role in establishing summer learning programs. The 3rd report to be published in late 2023, National Call to Action for Summer Learning, Final Report, will present findings from the overall study.


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