September 12, 2014
Reading Partners featured as "Untapped Force" in NY Times article
Every day, Reading Partners volunteers make a meaningful difference in the lives of students who need help unlocking their reading skills. We see it work, and the recent randomized control trial by MDRC study provides the evidence. The New York Times Opinionator recently featured our program as a potential “fix” in the literacy crisis. According to Reading Partners CEO Michael Lombardo, there’s a potential army of school volunteers that make a measurable difference and become partners in helping kids achieve reading proficiency. Reading Partners is tapping into this resource, with the vision that some day all children in this country will have the reading skills they need to reach their full potential.
And they agree on something else: any reading curriculum works better if children who are struggling get the chance to work, one on one, with a tutor.
“If I were a principal, I’d spend my money on tutoring,” said Robin Jacob, an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan’s School of Education. “If I could afford to spend it on tutoring with a trained teacher, I would do that. We’ve known for a long time that a trained teacher, one on one, is very effective.”
The problem, of course, is that very few principals can afford it. A single teacher dedicated to individual tutoring can work effectively with a small number of children each week. How many teachers would be needed to help all struggling students? The schools where tutoring is most needed, moreover, are those that can least afford it.
Is there a cheaper substitute that’s still effective? Health care in places where resources are short benefits from task-shifting: moving jobs to the lowest-trained and lowest-paid people who can do them well. That way, the expensive professionals can concentrate on the things that only they can do.
Resources are always short in education. So it is welcome news that two recent studies show that task-shifting tutoring programs can work on a wide scale — and that scale can be achieved relatively affordably.
One evaluation, by the highly respected research group MDRC, found that Reading Partners, which uses community volunteers, added 1.5 to 2 months of literacy growth each year for children in the program from second to fifth grade.
Another study, by the University of Chicago’s social research organization NORC, looked at Minnesota Reading Corps, which uses as tutors members of AmeriCorps, the national service program that celebrated its 20th birthday this week. Kindergarten children in the program learned twice as many letter sounds in 16 weeks as children in a control group (the reading effects diminished for each grade after kindergarten) and it worked for even the most disadvantaged.
Tutoring by nonteachers is far from new. Many schools put parent volunteers to work tutoring, and even more employ paraprofessionals as tutors some of the time. But tutoring programs have usually been single-school and ad hoc, and many tutors don’t do the stuff research shows is effective.
“Having an adult sit with a kid and read back and forth may be successful for other things, but not improving reading performance for a kid who’s running into a lot of trouble learning to read,” said Robert Slavin, director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University and founder of the widely used school reform strategy Success for All. “A kid in tutoring is there for a reason — he has failed to learn to read in the usual way. You don’t remediate that difficulty just doing things that are helpful for a normal reader. That kid has a particular need for a well-organized, well-thought-through, step-by-step curriculum.”
These exist, and have shown success, but the studies have been small. “Forty volunteers whom you can monitor closely,” said Jacob. “Is that scalable? It’s hard to say. We only recently have this evidence that it can be effective on a wider scale.”
Minnesota Reading Corps, which started in 2003, uses AmeriCorps volunteers (they receive a stipend from the federal government) as full-time or half-time tutors. Full-time tutors who work with children in kindergarten through third grade have a caseload of 15 to 20 students at a time.
Tutors get only three days of training before they begin, but are closely coached. The school’s reading specialist makes sure the tutors are carrying out the lessons accurately. And a master coach from Reading Corps comes in once a month for training.
Tutors work with each child for 20 minutes per day, five days a week. They learn 10 different lessons, such as associating sounds with letters, breaking words into phonemes or recognizing punctuation. The school’s reading specialist chooses which to use in each session. In the reading wars, Minnesota Reading Corps is a noncombatant, its program designed to work with any curriculum.
The program began spreading two years ago and is now in seven other states. But Minnesota still has 85 percent of the 36,000 students in the program nationwide. “This could be replicated overnight in every state,” said Audrey Suker, chief executive of ServeMinnesota, Reading Corps’ parent organization. “AmeriCorps is in every state. Literacy experts are in every state. The resources are there.”
But are they? The program costs roughly $800 per child (mostly the AmeriCorps stipend, plus some state and private funding — the school contributes only some staff time) — a great investment if it can turn a nonreader into a reader. But Minnesota Reading Corps is already the largest state AmeriCorps program in the country — and AmeriCorps struggles for every dollar.
“If California were to replicate the program on the same scale as Minnesota, it would take the entire AmeriCorps budget,” said Michael Lombardo, the chief executive of Reading Partners. “It’s difficult to see how it could scale nationally — or in the states we work in, such as New York, California or Texas.”
Schools that join Reading Partners must provide a dedicated room and some money — between $10,000 and $25,000. Each school gets a single AmeriCorps member to supervise the volunteers and integrate tutoring into the school’s regular reading instruction. These site coordinators get a few weeks of training before the school year starts, and then ongoing coaching.
The volunteers are parents or other community members who work as little as an hour per week. Each student gets two tutoring sessions a week of 45 minutes each. The program can work with as many children as the number of volunteers allows — in some schools, Reading Partners tutors 100 kids, in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Tutors sit with their students at different stations, usually eight tutor/student pairs in one room, while the site coordinator circulates and coaches. A program coordinator from Reading Partners, with experience in the classroom and with literacy instruction, visits each school each week.
The volunteers get detailed lesson plans and scripts that tell them exactly what to do in each lesson — to teach long vowel sounds, for example, the plan gives them the words to use as examples, questions to ask students and the steps, such as: point to the vowel. Have the student say the vowel sound, then say the word. Tutors are asked to keep detailed notes — important, because scheduling and keeping tutors is a big issue. Although 85 percent of tutors who start the year finish it, temporary absences are common.
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Students without a tutor can get a sub, or the site coordinator can fill in, or they can go in on Friday for a makeup session. But absences matter — because the relationship between tutor and student matters. “Children need to have that one person they can turn to, to say ‘I don’t understand,’ “ said Kristina Beecher, principal of P.S. 3 in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. “They might have questions but are too embarrassed to say it out loud. Making a mistake with that one person, they are so close that they don’t feel bad about it.”
P.S. 3 has no reading coach. It has classroom teachers (with 32 students in each first grade class) and one retired teacher who comes in part-time to work with fourth graders. And it has Reading Partners, who tutored about 45 students last year. Beecher credits the program with increasing students’ confidence, comprehension and test scores.
The MDRC evaluation found that Reading Partners was effective for a wide range of schools and students — and worked especially well for students with the lowest skills. Unlike Minnesota Reading Corps, effects did not vary by grade level. “We were anticipating we wouldn’t see any effects with fourth and fifth graders” as these students have less room for growth, said Jacob, the lead author of the evaluation. “But it works with them as well.”
Key to these results is fidelity — a system that can ensure volunteers can deliver the lessons correctly. “Reading Partners tried to provide for volunteer tutors something that’s straightforward for them to apply,” said William Corrin, deputy director of the K-12 education policy area at MDRC. “The further you get away from someone with training and experience in reading instruction, the more important it is you’re giving him bulletproof material.”
Slavin believes that community volunteers should be a part of a tiered system of tutoring that employs volunteers, paraprofessionals and, for kids who need the most help, certified teachers. “But as a means of solving our reading crisis, I don’t think they’re a serious response,” he said. “There aren’t enough of them. You can use up an entire volunteer on one kid. You’d need an army of volunteers to work with the number of kids struggling in schools.”
That army exists, said Lombardo. “This is the slumbering giant of human capital. Eighteen million Americans volunteer in the public schools. And that number would be even bigger if volunteers knew they didn’t have to be sharpening pencils — they can be partners in instruction.”
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Tina Rosenberg won a Pulitzer Prize for her book “The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism.” She is a former editorial writer for The Times and the author, most recently, of “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World” and the World War II spy story e-book “D for Deception.”