Mobilizing Volunteer Tutors to Improve Student Literacy

Implementation, Impacts, and Costs of the Reading Partners Program

A girl with a tutor
By Robin Tepper Jacob, Catherine Armstrong, Jacklyn Willard

This study reports on an evaluation of the Reading Partners program, which uses community volunteers to provide one-on-one tutoring to struggling readers in underresourced elementary schools. Established in 1999 in East Menlo Park, California, Reading Partners’ mission is to help children become lifelong readers by empowering communities to provide individualized instruction with measurable results. At each school, Reading Partners transforms a dedicated space into a “reading center,” places a full-time team member on site to manage day-to-day operations, and recruits a corps of 40 to 100 community volunteers to work one-on-one with students in pull-out sessions during the school day or after school in kindergarten through grade 5. (This evaluation included only students in grades 2 through 5.)

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 evaluate its effectiveness. This report is the second publication from that evaluation. A policy brief released by MDRC in June 2014 reported the initial findings from the evaluation, which was conducted during the 2012-2013 school year in 19 schools in three states, with more than 1,100 students randomly assigned to the study’s program and control groups.

This report builds on those initial findings by describing the Reading Partners program and its implementation in greater detail, exploring whether the program is more or less effective for particular subgroups of students, and assessing some of the potential explanations for the program’s success to date. In addition, this report includes an analysis of the cost of implementing the Reading Partners program in 6 of the 19 sites.

Key Findings

  • Despite the myriad difficulties inherent in operating a program whose direct service providers are volunteers, Reading Partners was implemented in the schools with a relatively high degree of fidelity to the program model. On average, students in the study received approximately 1.5 tutoring sessions per week, and spent 28 weeks in the Reading Partners program.

  • Reading Partners had a positive and statistically significant impact on three different measures of student reading proficiency. These impacts are equivalent to approximately one and a half to two months of additional growth in reading proficiency among the program group relative to the control group and are robust across a range of student characteristic subgroups as well as across groups of students who had different levels of reading comprehension skills at the start of the study.

  • Reading Partners is a low-cost option for underresourced schools because a majority of the costs are in-kind contributions, primarily from community volunteers. On average, schools bear only about 20 percent ($710 per program group student) of the total cost of the resources required to implement the program, and over half of these costs are in-kind contributions of space and staff time from the school.
Jacob, Robin Tepper, Catherine Armstrong, and Jacklyn Altuna Willard. 2015. Mobilizing Volunteer Tutors to Improve Student Literacy. New York: MDRC.