New York Times Column Features MDRC Study on Reading Partners Volunteer Tutoring Program

MDRC’s study of Reading Partners, a one-on-one tutoring program delivered by volunteers to struggling readers in low-income elementary schools, was featured September 11 in the Fixes column of the New York Times. Here’s an excerpt from the piece, “An Untapped Force in the Fight for Literacy,” by Tina Rosenberg:

People disagree, quite strenuously, on the best curriculum for teaching children to read. But all participants in the reading wars agree on some other things: Early reading is crucial — a child who does not read proficiently by third grade will probably fall further and further behind each year. American schools are failing: two out of three fourth graders don’t read at grade level.

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…..

….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.”

MDRC’s study is part of a larger investment made by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, the federal Social Innovation Fund, and co-investors 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.