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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