Christine A. Rowett
While volunteerism and its merits are riding a wave of
publicity and enthusiasm, some are suggesting caution and concern
that the efforts are not made in vain.
Center for Social Organization of Schools researcher Barbara Wasik is a strong proponent of helping others and reaping the benefits of that help. But, Wasik says, there is no conclusive evidence on the overall effectiveness of many volunteer programs, and there should be.
One goal of President Clinton's "America Reads Challenge"--a $2.75 billion plan--is that all children will read by the third grade. One proposed contributing factor toward that goal is the use of volunteers to help tutor students in reading.
Wasik spent years reviewing tutoring programs throughout the country and says while the intentions of these programs are always good, their effectiveness has not been sufficiently studied.
"Before millions of volunteers enter our schools, it is important to systematically examine the role they can play and the kind of training they will need to be effective in their volunteer role," she wrote in the recently published paper "Volunteer Tutoring Programs: A Review of Research on Achievement Outcomes."
Wasik examined primarily eight ongoing programs and 100 students and admits that her research is inconclusive. What is conclusive, she says, is the need for more research.
"We don't even know what is the optimal amount of time for tutoring or what materials are best," Wasik says. "I think this is a great opportunity to spend some time looking at some of these questions."
Wasik's research specifically focused on the effectiveness of the reading programs, whether or not reading levels improved. Two of the more successful programs--The Howard Street Tutoring Program developed by researchers in Illinois and Book Buddies, a program by educational experts at the University of Virginia--had several common factors. Not surprisingly, Wasik supports those efforts and would like to see other programs follow suit.
Perhaps her strongest recommendation is the need for consistent input and training by education and learning experts.
"It makes sense in that if you're going to have a group of people who are well-intentioned and want to help but don't know much about reading, you need to have somebody guide them in that process," she says.
Other recommendations include a structured tutoring model, appropriate learning materials and coordination between tutors and classroom teachers. If one or more of those factors are not present, Wasik says, it doesn't necessarily mean a program will not be successful.
"I just don't think we know," she says. "And that's really the point."
Wasik says she was extremely surprised to find out none of the reading programs in existence had been evaluated.
"I think people would feel even better about what they're doing if they knew it had a positive effect," she says. "That's not to say stop what you're doing. Let's keep going and find out...We owe it to kids to at least do that."
The Hopkins Tutorial project, sponsored by the Office of Volunteer Services, provides one-on-one tutoring to more than 100 Baltimore City students each year. Project coordinator Weslie Wornom is a reading specialist who runs orientation training, teaching presentations and seminars each semester.
"We don't just throw any of our volunteers out there unprepared," says Bill Tiefenworth, director of Volunteer Services. "We try to make every minute count."
The Tutorial Project is just one of several educational outreach programs sponsored by the Office of Volunteer Services. Others includes a homework club, SAT instruction for high school students and adult education training.
"Hopkins students have a lot to offer the community," Wasik says. "College students are bright and can follow instructions."
Most Hopkins students have some volunteer experience before they arrive, Wornom says, so they are somewhat prepared. Additionally, the Tutorial Project staff usually includes a "teacher advocate" from the Baltimore City School System, someone who is familiar with the schools and can work with the children's teachers if necessary.
For the Hopkins students, the project is a often a break from academic pressures.
"They leave here with great big smiles on their faces," Wornom says of the tutors. "There's nothing like being able to help a child and see that light bulb go on."
Effective tutoring, Wasik says, is not based on a number of hours.
"It's what you do during that time, and how the tutoring process is structured," she says.
Senior Kate Dunn worked with 11-year-old April Ratliff for the past two semesters and last week received an "exceptional dedication" award for her efforts.
"These kids are so dedicated," Wornom says. "But it's a toss-up of who enjoys it more: the tutors or the kids."
Dunn, a senior public health major who will take part in the Teach for America Program next year, says she feels fortunate to have been offered the resources and educational opportunities that she has.
"I might as well share it," she says.
The kind of evaluating Wasik believes is necessary could begin with a program like the Tutorial Project.
"That's a perfect place for this kind of research," she says. "There are plenty of researchers on a college campus who could that."
Wasik, who calls Clinton's reading challenge a "marvelous commitment," is hopeful yet realistic about the plan. She is, however, certain that assessing the efforts to achieve that goal can only help it.
"It just strikes me that $2.75 billion is an enormous amount of money to teach kids how to read. If we're going to spend that much money, we should know more about proven practices," she says. "I would hate to see, after three years or so, people come along and say volunteering doesn't work. I would hate that."
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