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Policy Proposals

Summer opportunity scholarships (SOS): A proposal to narrow the skills gap

April 1, 2006


The Problem

Studies show that students’ basic reading and math skills atrophy by nearly one-third of a school year over the summer break, with students from economically disadvantaged homes experiencing a much sharper learning loss than their wealthier peers. This learning loss has long-term consequences, as higher achievement in the early years of a child’s education create lifelong benefits both for the child and for society.

The Proposal

The Summer Opportunities Scholarships (SOS) program would be offered to K–5 students who are eligible for the free lunch program. SOS, for which a range of school districts, for-profit companies, nonprofit organizations, and other organizations would employ small-group, scientifically based instruction techniques—would be phased in, reaching nearly 1 million students in the first year, with that number doubling within a few years.


Even in early grades, a large gap in skills exists between students from economically advantaged and disadvantaged families. Evidence suggests that a substantial share of this skills gap emerges during the summer months, when school is not in session. Children from disadvantaged families experience greater losses in skills during summer vacations than do their more advantaged counterparts. Several studies provide evidence that summer school or summer enrichment programs are effective interventions for stanching this summer learning loss. Based on this evidence, we propose and design a policy of Summer Opportunity Scholarships (SOS), which will provide scholarships so that economically disadvantaged children in kindergarten through fifth grade can participate in a six-week summer school or summer enrichment program of their parents’ choosing. SOS summer program providers will be required to use small-group, scientifically based instruction with a strong emphasis on improving basic reading and math skills, which are a particular area of concern for many disadvantaged children. Students and providers participating in SOS will be evaluated annually to assess the program’s effectiveness. We provide budgetary estimates for a nationwide SOS program. In our budget, financial responsibility for SOS would be shared equally by the federal and state governments, with each responsible for $2 billion per year once SOS is fully phased in. In view of the promising evidence on the effectiveness of summer school, we believe that SOS has the potential to make a lasting contribution toward narrowing the skills gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students.