Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Capitalizing on Volunteer Tutors: An Experimental Evaluation of a Tutoring Program for Struggling Readers

Friday, November 13, 2015 : 9:10 AM
Tuttle North (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Robin Tepper Jacob1, A. Brooks Bowden2, Catherine Armstrong3, Yilin Pan2 and Dean Elson4, (1)University of Michigan, (2)Columbia University, (3)MDRC, (4)Reading Partners
Today, school and district policymakers are faced with tighter budget constraints than pre-recession levels (Leachman & Mai, 2014). However, basic issues such as reading competency continue to be an issue. National statistics on literacy attainment are profoundly 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 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013).

While there are a variety of interventions to help struggling elementary school readers, many of the programs with the strongest evidence base are both time- and resource-intensive, and as such may not always be viable options for already under-resourced schools (Hollands et al., 2013; Simon, 2011). It is of vital importance that rigorous research provide evidence of effects and costs for decisionmakers to enact reform successfully and efficiently.

Part of the White House’s Social Innovation Fund initiative, this study aims to fill that gap by rigorously evaluating both the impacts and costs of a scale-up of the Reading Partners program. The findings show that the program offers schools an efficient option for providing supplemental reading instruction to students by capitalizing on community volunteers who provide one-on-one tutoring to students who struggle with reading in under-resourced elementary schools. The randomized control trial used to assess program impacts included 19 sites nation-wide and found that the program successfully raised reading skills among 2nd – 5th grade students, regardless of incoming ability, English language learner status, grade level, or gender (Jacob et al., 2015). 

Cost data were collected for both Reading Partners and the other available supplemental reading services available in six of the 19 study sites. Cost data were collected and analyzed, following the ingredients method, an approach to estimating total social costs that is rooted in standard cost accounting practices and the economic concept of opportunity cost (Levin & McEwan, 2001). The total cost of the Reading Partners program is comparable to other one-on-one tutoring programs. However, this program stands out as an efficient option for schools because the portion of the costs borne by the school is small (20%), compared to other supplemental reading services offered by the set of schools included in the evaluation (96%).

The study provides evidence that volunteer tutoring programs can be effective when implemented at scale, and may be a cost-effective option for under-resourced schools. Additionally, the study serves as an example of how an evaluation can rigorously examine both the impacts and costs of a program to provide compelling evidence of success.

Full Paper: