New Study Shows Reading Partners Tutoring Program Boosts Reading Proficiency of 2nd- to 5th-Graders at Low Cost

One-on-One Tutoring Provided by Community Volunteers

(New York, March 4, 2015) — MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research firm, released encouraging final results today from a rigorous evaluation of Reading Partners, a successful one-on-one tutoring program delivered by volunteers to struggling readers in low-income elementary schools. After one year, Reading Partners boosted three different measures of reading proficiency, including reading comprehension, for second- to fifth-graders. Tutoring by community volunteers twice a week for 45 minutes each session resulted in approximately two months of growth in literacy for Reading Partners students over a control group of students who also received supplemental reading services. As a program staffed mostly by volunteers, Reading Partners is substantially less costly than other supplemental reading services typically offered to struggling readers.

Nationwide, two out of three fourth-graders are reading below grade level, and almost one-third of children lack even basic reading skills. Children who struggle with reading in elementary school are at high risk of academic failure, high school dropout, and other negative outcomes.

The study is based upon work supported by the Social Innovation Fund (SIF), a White House initiative administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency also responsible for AmeriCorps. The SIF is a public-private effort designed to identify and expand effective solutions to critical social challenges. The research is also part of a larger investment made by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and co-investors in the True North Fund in scaling up Reading Partners.

What Did MDRC’s Study Find?

MDRC conducted a rigorous random assignment study of Reading Partners in 19 schools in three states, involving more than 1,200 second- to fifth-graders. Key findings, which reaffirm results released in June 2014, include:

  • Reading Partners was implemented in the schools with a high degree of fidelity, a notable achievement considering the challenges of implementing a tutoring program that relies on 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 1.5 to 2 months of growth in literacy achievement. (This impact represents the value-added of Reading Partners, since 65 percent of the students in the control group also received some 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, and for those who are not native English speakers.
  • Reading Partners is a low-cost option for under-resourced schools because a majority of the costs are in-kind contributions, primarily from community volunteers. On average, schools bear only about 20 percent (or $710 per student) of the total cost of the resources required to implement the program ($3,610 per student), and over half of these costs are in-kind contributions of space and staff time from the school.
  • The portion of costs borne by the study schools to implement Reading Partners was substantially lower than for the other supplemental reading services provided by those schools. While the cost to the study schools for Reading Partners was $710 per program group student, the average cost of the other supplemental reading services borne by the same schools was $1,700.

"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.”

“When the Social Innovation Fund was launched, we set a goal to find solutions that work and make them work for more people,” said Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. “Five years later, I am proud to talk about the extraordinary impact these programs are having, and I am grateful to the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation for helping us bring that promise to light. Reading Partners is a great example of what is possible when we find something that works and invest in its success.”

“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,” says Reading Partners CEO Michael Lombardo. “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. The cost study shows us that for every dollar invested in our program, our volunteers and AmeriCorps members double the resources provided to students.”

What Is Reading Partners?

Established in 1999 in East Menlo Park, California, Reading Partners operates in under-resourced elementary schools where supervised volunteers from the community provide one-on-one literacy tutoring to struggling readers in kindergarten to fifth grade. At each school, Reading Partners transforms a space into a designated “reading center,” places a full-time staff member on site (typically an AmeriCorps member), and recruits a corps of 40 to 100 community volunteers. The tutor pool includes individuals of different ages (from 14 to 70-plus), genders, races and ethnicities, and occupations (for example, high school, college, and graduate students; working adults; unemployed individuals; and retirees). The tutors deliver a highly structured, modular curriculum in twice-weekly, 45-minute sessions. The average student stays in the program for more than five months, and many remain for a year or longer.

In the years since its inception, Reading Partners has grown to serve more than 8,500 students in more than 160 schools throughout California, Colorado, Maryland, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Washington state, and Washington, DC. In March 2011, Reading Partners received a three-year True North Fund investment of up to $3.5 million in grants from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and the Social Innovation Fund, matched by $3.5 million from True North Fund co-investors, to further expand its early intervention literacy program to elementary schools throughout the country and to evaluate its effectiveness. Reading Partners has also been expanding with the support of AmeriCorps, a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service. AmeriCorps members play key roles in implementing the Reading Partners intervention, including recruiting, training, and supervising community volunteers.

Contact: John Hutchins, Chief Communications Officer, 212-340-8604, [email protected].

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Headquartered in New York City and Oakland, CA, MDRC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization with more than 40 years of experience designing and evaluating education and social policy initiatives.

The Social Innovation Fund, a key White House initiative and program of the Corporation for National and Community Service, combines public and private resources to grow the impact of innovative, community-based solutions that have compelling evidence of improving the lives of people in low-income communities throughout the United States. The SIF invests in three priority areas: economic opportunity, healthy futures, and youth development.