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March 4, 2015

Study finds volunteers can raise reading proficiency and resources in schools

Gold standard research finds Reading Partners’ curriculum and volunteer tutoring program improve reading proficiency and multiplies resources for elementary school students in need.

Community volunteers and AmeriCorps members can make a significant impact on student reading proficiency and are a low cost option for schools, according to the results of a yearlong study by MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research firm. The randomized control trial examined Reading Partners, which engages volunteers to deliver an evidence-based curriculum through one-on-one tutoring to struggling readers in low-income communities.

logo_high_resThe study found that Reading Partners boosted three different measures of reading proficiency over a control group of students who also received supplemental reading services. It also included a cost analysis, which revealed that the Reading Partners program is substantially less costly for schools to implement than typical literacy interventions.

These results demonstrate the tremendous potential of volunteer tutors to move the needle on reading proficiency in the United States, where two out of three fourth-graders are reading below grade level, and almost one-third of children lack even basic reading skills. Volunteers can help combat the high risk of academic failure, high school dropout, and other negative outcomes associated with falling behind in reading.

Key Study Findings

The rigorous random assignment study evaluated Reading Partners in 19 schools in three states, involving more than 1,200 second- to fifth-graders. Key findings include:

  • Reading Partners was implemented across schools with a high degree of fidelity, a notable achievement considering the challenges of implementing a tutoring program that relies on thousands of volunteers.
  • Reading Partners had a positive and statistically significant impact on all three measures of student reading proficiency examined — reading comprehension, reading fluency, and sight-word reading — that equaled approximately 2 months of learning relative to the control group. This impact represents the value-add of Reading Partners, since 65 percent of the students in the control group also received supplemental reading services.
  • The Reading Partners program was effective for a wide variety of students — from different grades and baseline reading achievement levels, for male and female students, non-native English speakers and students of different ethnicities.
  • The study demonstrated that for every dollar invested in Reading Partners, double the resources were provided to students through the volunteer tutoring model.

“The results of this evaluation are particularly exciting,” said Robin Jacob, the principal investigator for the study. “They show that, by using community volunteers as part of a well-designed program, schools can provide support to struggling readers at a fraction of the cost that is typically required to support these students.”

There are 18 million Americans volunteering in schools every year – a tremendous, untapped resource in making a meaningful and measurable difference in raising reading achievement

“This demonstrates that with a structured, evidence-based curriculum and the right supports and resources, any one of them can change the trajectory of a child’s education,” says Reading Partners CEO Michael Lombardo.

Read the full report by MDRC

View the infographic

RP Infographic snippet

Learn more about the Reading Partners program

Reading Partners operates in under-resourced elementary schools where supervised volunteers from the community provide one-on-one literacy tutoring to struggling readers.  At each school, Reading Partners places a full-time staff member on site (typically an AmeriCorps member), and recruits and trains up to 100 community volunteers who commit an hour a week of their time to deliver a highly-structured, modular curriculum in twice-weekly, 45-minute sessions.  Reading Partners volunteer tutors range in age from 14 to octogenarians and include all genders, ethnicities, and occupations.

The study is part of a larger investment made by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, the federal Social Innovation Fund (SIF), and co-investors in the True North Fund in scaling up Reading Partners.  Administered by the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, the SIF is a public-private partnership designed to identify and expand effective solutions to critical social challenges.


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