A well-designed summer program can help low-income students read and do math better. In fact, attending a summer program regularly for as little as five weeks for two years in a row could result in about a quarter of a year’s gain in both reading and math for students from low-income families.

That is the rather surprising finding of a new study of summer programs in several cities, and it provides powerful evidence for those who have argued that students from low-income homes should be provided with more instructional time.

The evaluation, by the Rand Corporation, is part of a multi-year exploration of whether summer programs are one way to stem the “summer slide,” which has been found to be a key element of achievement gaps between students from high-income families and those from low-income families.

In 2011 the New York-based Wallace Foundation funded a large experiment to see if summer programs could make a difference — providing programs for more than 3,000 students from low-income families in Boston; Dallas; Duval County, Florida; Pittsburgh; and Rochester, New York — and hired Rand to assess the effects.

Comparing the results against control groups of students, Rand found that students who regularly attended two years of the summer programs gained almost a quarter of a year in reading and math. One reason the results are surprising is that when Rand issued its evaluation of the first year’s results (last year), it found a smaller effect in math and none in reading.

The larger effects this year could be because the students had a second year of summer programs or because the programs themselves improved from one year to another. The study wasn’t able to identify which explanation is more likely, but it will continue to study the effects of summer programs for the next few years and may be able to answer those kinds of questions in the future

In any case, key to academic gains in summer programs are steady attendance — at least 20 days but preferably more — and a high-quality program with engaging, fun activities for school children and highly effective teachers teaching for at least three hours a day.

For a quick summary of the findings, go hereAnd for the full report from The Wallace Foundation, go here.

Photo credit: Wallace Foundation