Competence and confidence in reading constitute the foundation for all educational achievement. Students who struggle with reading inevitably struggle with all academic course work, and those who begin school behind their peers rarely catch up without significant intervention. Given the centrality of reading skills, the national statistics on literacy attainment are deeply distressing: two out of three American fourth-graders are reading below grade level, and almost one-third of children nationwide lack even basic reading skills. For children in low-income families, the numbers are even more alarming, with 80 percent reading below grade level. Despite several decades of educational reform efforts, only incremental progress has been made in addressing this crisis. From 1998 to 2013, the number of low-income fourth-graders reading at a proficient level increased by only 7 percentage points.
There are a plethora of literacy and reading programs that use a variety of methods and approaches designed to improve students’ ability to read. Research suggests that among these, one-on-one tutoring has shown the greatest promise in improving reading performance. Such tutoring delivered by a certified teacher has consistently demonstrated large impacts on the reading proficiency of struggling readers. Yet its high cost means that it is often not a viable option for already underresourced schools. Using volunteers or paraprofessionals may be a more cost-effective approach to the problem, but to date little rigorous evidence exists regarding the efficacy of such an approach. Though prior research suggests that tutoring by volunteers can improve the reading proficiency of students who are falling behind, most of the studies that have been conducted have used very small sample sizes (generally fewer than 100 students, with only half receiving tutoring). Thus, even if their effectiveness has been established in studies using smaller samples, there is only limited evidence that such programs can be expanded to a large scale (for example, delivered to hundreds of students in multiple locations). In addition, research on the implementation and effectiveness of volunteer programs suggests that expanding them to a large scale might be quite difficult.
This policy brief tells the story of Reading Partners, a successful one-on-one volunteer tutoring program that serves struggling readers in low-income elementary schools and that has already been taken to a large scale. In the years since its inception, Reading Partners has grown to serve more than 7,000 students in over 130 schools throughout California, Colorado, New York, Oklahoma, Maryland, South Carolina, Texas, and Washington, DC. In March 2011, the program was awarded a three-year investment of up to $3.5 million from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and the Social Innovation Fund (SIF), matched by $3.5 million in grants from the True North Fund and coinvestors, to further expand its literacy program to elementary schools throughout the country and to evaluate the effectiveness of the program. (Reading Partners has also been expanding with the support of AmeriCorps, a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service. AmeriCorps members provide teaching, mentoring, after-school support, and other services to students in more than 10,000 public schools, including one in three persistently low-achieving schools.)
This policy brief summarizes the early results of that evaluation, which was conducted during the 2012-2013 school year in 19 schools in three states, and which involved 1,265 students. The evaluation finds positive impacts of the program on three different measures of reading proficiency. These encouraging results demonstrate that Reading Partners, when delivered on a large scale and implemented with fidelity, can be an effective tool for improving reading proficiency.