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The Tutor Revolution
Boosting Literacy, One Child at a Time

Think America’s education system is a shambles? If so, chances are you’re not comforted by all the grand schemes Washington’s policy wonks have cooked up to set things right. Fortunately, though, at least one modest, small-scale effort can have an outsized impact: volunteer tutoring. Abbie Lieberman, writing at the New America Foundation’s EdCentral, describes the positive effects of her own work with a first-grader named Joey—effects that are reflected in nationwide statistics:

According to a report released last month by research organization MDRC, I shouldn’t be surprised by Joey’s progress. MDRC researchers found in a randomized controlled trial, which included over 1,000 students in 19 schools in three states, that the Reading Partners program has a positive impact on three different measures of reading proficiency: reading comprehension, sight word efficiency, and fluency. According to MDRC’s findings, the 2nd grade through 5th grade students (lower grades were not included in the evaluation) who participated in Reading Partners experienced about one and a half to two months more reading growth than students who received other reading interventions. […]

The study concluded that Reading Partners and similar one-on-one tutoring programs with structured curriculums might be a cost-effective way to help under-resourced schools improve student literacy. The program only costs participating schools about $700 per program student on average. To put this in perspective, the other reading interventions used by students in the study’s control groups cost between $1,050 and $4,890 per student, with an average cost of $1,780 per student. Reading Partners is “resource-rich” according to MDRC and is valued at “approximately $3,610 per program group student.” But because of Reading Partners’ model, the majority of that cost disappears thanks to in-kind contributions and volunteer service.

Research indicates that third-grade reading proficiency can predict students’ likelihood of graduating from high school. With 80 percent of low-income fourth graders in the United States reading below grade level, it’s encouraging to know that community volunteers can have a measurable, positive impact on student literacy skills.

For young children with reading and language difficulties, the one-on-one attention of a volunteer tutor can make a big difference. Training and curriculum help, but the indispensable ingredient is the dedicated adult willing to take the time to help a struggling child—something many of them don’t have at home.

Lieberman’s tale, and the success of Reading Partners, illustrate the importance of the human element in education. Our bureaucratized education systems and technocratic systems of management and control all too often devalue the irreducible power of teaching and learning.

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  • GS

    There is an idukashinal example I like to use, and it consists of two parts. The first part comes from the NAEP [national assessment of educational progress] for 8-graders, as quoted in Charles Murray’s “Real education”:
    “Amanda wants to paint each face of cube a different color. How many colors would she need?”. A multiple-choice idiocy, and its target IQ could be estimated at 90, since something like 30% of the 8-graders still got it wrong. (The answer is 6)
    The second part comes from a different point in time (ca. 50 yrs ago) and place, but it was also directed at the 8-graders:
    “Given a cubic playing dice, how many different point arrangements on the dice faces are possible, one number (1 to 6) per face? Two dice number arrangements are considered different if they are not interconvertible into each other by rotation”. No multiple choice there, the students were supposed to write the answer and a proof of it on a clean sheet of paper. (The answer: 30 if the points orientation on a cube face is irrelevant; and if one considers that the 2, 3, and 6 points, as normally used, do not have the c-4 symmetry and therefore allow for two orientations each with regard to the rest of the dice cube, then 240).
    This, of course, had a totally different target audience: a special school with the minimal student IQ of 130-140. And while some students failed to solve it, most of the others succeeded.
    This example merely serves to point to the rarely spoken truth at the bottom of it: the children are not equally educable/trainable. And therefore in trying to boost literacy, one should look long and hard on the limits of the student. In the other fields it is not controversial (the SEALS routinely do 150 push-ups, while many folks in the more common walks of like might have difficulty with 10 or even 5), but in education it is a taboo topic.

    • Andrew Allison

      Other than the (IQ=90) Apples to (IQ=130+) Oranges comparison, there’s the problem that IQ tests have been shown to be about as good as climate models in predicting outcomes. Were the criteria used to estimate the more recent IQ test the same as were applied to the 50 year-old one? Things, not the least of which is the admission of kids with culturally different backgrounds, have changed a bit since then. That not all children are intellectually equal is self-evident. The fact that something like 30% of 8th-graders are incapable of visualizing a cube is horrifying. There’s something very, very wrong with primary (K-12) education. A conspiracy theorist might think that children are being deliberately maleducated.

      • GS

        Christ put it best: “Cast not your pearls before swine”. And a cube is a cube in any educational background. As for the IQ predictive powers, read Murray and Herrnstein “the Bell Curve”. In good hands it can predict quite a lot. From a single class of 35 in that special school that I know of, about a third are now professoring around the globe, 20+ have doctorates in different fields, 3 have suicided, and two have died naturally.

        • Andrew Allison

          A truly amazing collection of non-sequiturs, which I leave to others to evaluate.

          • GS

            Do you have anything substantial to say? PC-tardation is a mental disease. When I tutor, I tutor the brights only. The rest are of no concern to me. The retardees you can keep.
            Confucius was a great teacher, by all accounts. And he said, “if, on being shown a side of a square, the student does not come up with the three other sides, I do not instruct him any further.”

          • Andrew Allison

            Since you ask:

            Who are the swine before whom the pearls are being cast, the readers of this blog or the unfortunate students who have not been taught what a cube is?

            Regarding the Bell Curve, it is disingenuous of you to pretend that the victims of today’s so-called “public school education” can be compared in any way to the obviously select group of students of which you were apparently a part. Those, since you apparently failed to grasp a perfectly clear formulation, are the apples and oranges.
            Next, WTF does the current status of the select group to whom you refer have to do with the victims of today’s so-called “public education system?
            Finally, ” I tutor the brights only. The rest are of no concern to me. The retardees you can keep.” betrays despicable elitism. Had the elite school which you attended taught you anything of value, you would be more concerned about the less advantaged.

          • GS

            And I see your egalitarianism as despicable. Your retardees you can keep to yourself. With your “clients” I am not concerned. As I already mentioned, when I tutor, I tutor the brights only. So far, the tutorees have not been complaining.
            P.s. you might ponder the difference between a “side” of a square and its “dimension”. Confucius spoke of “sides”, at least that’s what the standard translation gives.

          • Andrew Allison


          • GS

            “Who are the swine before whom the pearls are being cast…?” – The idiot students, of course, who else? “Sir, it is retarded in cursive”. And the woe-“idukators” excessively solicitous of them, as well.
            Matthew 19:11: “But He said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given.” And therefore it is much more fruitful to tutor exactly those to whom it is given, and to develop them to the maximal extent possible. Why should one be stunting the promising ones out of the faux solidarity with your retardees? Most surely, I do not.

  • Bruno_Behrend

    If only brainiacs like the two above used their intellect to solve some of our education problems instead of wobbling over an issue on which they substantially agree.

    One obvious solution is to move rapidly in the opposite direction from the common core and start aggressively decentralizing education.

    We need fewer teachers and more tutors. Money needs to be attached to the child and not the district, which is an utterly needless government entity.

    • Pete

      “Money needs to be attached to the child and not the district, which is an utterly needless government entity.”


    • GS

      The problem lies not with the lack of decentralization, but with the lack of streaming. The [foreign] special school I referred to operated [and operated rather successfully] in the land of extreme centralization. Specialized streaming there was a part of the educational policy. Where do you think all these East german, soviet, chinese etc. olympic medal winners were and are coming from? – from just such similarly organized [by profile] special schools. In the athletes’ case these are/were sport schools.
      The “no child left behind” idea is pernicious: quite a few would, and indeed should, be left behind, for a platoon marches at the speed of its slowest private.
      Whether the streaming is done locally or not-so-locally, should matter but little. Although… depending on the streaming cutoff, to fill one school of 800-1000 pupils could take a feeding area with some serious population in it. If, say, the cutoff is at 130 [round number, 2σ, made rather notorious by its use in “mensa”]- it would require an area with some 40-50000 schoolchildren, and probably more, since not every eligible child would get there. Say, the total population of 500000. If the cutoff number is higher, then the feeding area would grow to the size of a state, i.e. several million people.

      • Bruno_Behrend

        I don’t see the problem as “either/or.” I understand your point. What gets focused on gets done, and if you ID the people suited to their focus, you get the outliers.


        The idea proposed does not really conflict with that, particularly since tech is making the need (or the value) of brick and Mordor edifices far less necessary.

        I envision a way for everybody to find what they might “stream” into best, understanding that most will do fine just learning the basics so they can process the world around them.

        Our system here is so bad and overpriced that even the rich are getting shafted.

        • GS

          It does not have to be either/or, it could be “and” – but the most efficient unit of school cognitive segregation is the school itself, understood as a separate building with a separate teaching staff and a separate student body. And to fill such a school takes a large feeding area, significantly in excess of a “locality”. It could be a cooperative effort between several [even many] such localities, though.

  • Loader2000

    This is the single best idea I’ve read for improving education. I’ve seen the results form a program like this first hand where hundreds of children who’s parents were not very well educated and often didn’t speak English got weekly help on their homework (math and reading) from mostly single adults in their 20’s and 30’s. I can’t think of a more effective (both in terms of cost and effectiveness) approach to education.

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