THE BLOG

AmeriCorps Tutors Boost Literacy, Give Kids Tools for Success

03/30/2015 01:07 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2015

One of my priorities as CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service is using evidence and data to show results and drive greater impact on pressing national challenges. That's why I'm so excited about new research that demonstrates AmeriCorps tutors are increasing literacy and kindergarten readiness -- key benchmarks for success in school and in life.

The research, conducted by an independent evaluator, focused on the Pre-K program of the Minnesota Reading Corps, the largest AmeriCorps tutoring program. This program, started in Minnesota in 2003, has been replicated in seven other states and Washington, D.C.

2015-03-30-1427733890-2118835-MinnReadingCorpsGroup.jpgAmong other findings, the evaluation found that students tutored by AmeriCorps members were significantly more prepared for kindergarten than students without such tutors. AmeriCorps members helped students meet or exceed targets for kindergarten readiness in all five critical literacy skills assessed. The effect sizes were not only significant, but substantial in magnitude. The program was effective across a range of settings -- both in public schools and Head Start Centers -- and for all students regardless of gender, race/ethnicity, or dual language learner status.

In an in-depth story yesterday, the Washington Post said this research "suggests that volunteers could be instrumental in helping millions of American children to read proficiently." The Post concluded that well trained AmeriCorps members and volunteers can make a difference on a large scale, "across many schools and for thousands of students."

These strong findings come on the heels of similar research we released last year on the Minnesota Reading Corps K-3 program. Both of these evaluations provide compelling evidence that students tutored by AmeriCorps members achieved significantly higher literacy levels than students without such tutors, and that the impacts were statistically significant even among students at higher risk for academic failure.

Taken together, these reports demonstrate that AmeriCorps members are helping students meet two key literacy benchmarks: kindergarten readiness and reading at grade-level by third grade. Focusing on emergent literacy skills during the Pre-K years boosts reading abilities and helps young learners be ready for elementary school. And tutoring during the K-3 years helps ensure children can make the pivotal transition from "learning to read" to "reading to learn."

The implications are profound. We know that more than two-thirds of fourth grade students in the United States -- as many as 6 million children -- do not read proficiently. Those who read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to graduate from high school than those who don't. Being proficient in reading and graduating from high school are critical steps for success in our 21st century economy.

These findings reinforce what I hear from principals and superintendents around the country about the value of AmeriCorps in helping students stay on track in school. By combining the people power of AmeriCorps with proven education strategies, this evidence-based initiative can successfully address one of our nation's most critical priorities.

Another key finding is that the Minnesota Reading Corps model is effective in a variety of settings and therefore highly replicable. Thanks to the leadership of ServeMinnesota, other state service commissions, and literacy groups around the country, that replication is well underway. The program has grown from serving just 250 students in 2003 to reaching more than 36,000 annually. Today, 1,500 AmeriCorps members serve in Reading Corps programs at more than 900 sites across the country.

This growth wouldn't have been possible without public-private partnerships. From the beginning, partners like Target and the United Way, along with bipartisan Governors and state legislators, have joined together to bring this proven model to more children every year.

When AmeriCorps members are having such a strong impact on a key issue, and when that impact is demonstrated through rigorous research, policymakers can be assured that they are making a smart investment in programs that work.

This new evidence of AmeriCorps' effectiveness in improving childhood literacy is very welcome news for the future of education and is another reminder that national service is a powerful strategy for addressing critical problems facing our nation.

Wendy Spencer is CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that engages more engages more than 5 million Americans in service through its AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, Social Innovation Fund, and Volunteer Generation Fund programs.