Volunteer Tutors: Can They Teach Johnny to Read?


Zabrina Grisby spotted the telltale signs right away: A quiet grade-schooler, dutifully seated at a desk during detention, was flipping the pages of his book. When she asked him to read, he struggled with even the most basic words.

Ms. Grisby, an Americorps national-service worker at Carter Community School here, is now tutoring third-grader Terrence Lewis, one on one, to help him read better. "If you can't read, you're lost," she says.

Grisby wants to keep this shy student from becoming one of the nation's 1.6 million illiterate fourth-graders.

It's a goal that has the president's attention as well. In an effort that would cost as much as nine space shuttle missions, President Clinton wants to send a "citizen army" of 1 million volunteer tutors into America's schools. The controversial $2.75 billion effort - relying on Americorps workers like Grisby - is prompted by national reading tests showing that 40 percent of fourth-graders read below grade level.

Universal literacy for eight-year-olds is an unassailable goal.

It's an education axiom that students learn to read in the early grades and should be "reading to learn" by the end of third grade. Several governors, particularly Gov. George W. Bush (R) of Texas, are making this goal a focus of their administrations.

Yet rarely has such a highly praised national objective received such vocal criticism. Even as the legislation is being drafted to implement the president's plan, there is widespread skepticism that a mobilization of volunteers is the best solution.

Some see the program as an indictment of teachers. Others say the billions of dollars could be better spent on teacher training, proven reading programs, and early-childhood programs that encourage parents to read to their young children. Some wonder, too, whether the Republican Congress will go for the initiative, at least at full price.

Still, the Clinton administration cites research showing that tutors or "reading buddies" can help large numbers of children. And few teachers seem to be taking the offer of extra help as an indictment.

For her part, Grisby reports she has been warmly received at the Carter Community School, a low-slung building across from a dilapidated housing project downtown. "The teachers are grateful to have the help," she says. "They have about 25 students in a class, so having one-on-one time is very difficult."

But serious concerns remain about the relationship between teachers and such a massive influx of volunteers. It requires trained teachers and reading specialists - not just volunteer tutors - to boost literacy rates, experts say.

"Many of these children have very serious problems that require professionals," says Jeanne Chall, a reading expert and Harvard University professor emeritus. "If the professional teachers are having difficulty, why would volunteers do it better? It's not just a matter of smiling at the children and encouraging them to read. They really need instruction, and you have to know how to teach reading in those early grades."

Educators may balk, too, at Mr. Clinton's literacy plan because its underlying premise is "that schools and teachers cannot accomplish the most elementary and central task they have: teaching kids to read," says Chester Finn, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. The problem, Mr. Finn argues, is that many primary teachers are not doing a good job of teaching reading. "Maybe ensuring that our full-time teachers know how to teach kids to read should be a higher priority than sending in a bunch of amateurs to supplement them," he says.

The program isn't expected to begin until next fall, and many details are yet to be worked out. The administration is still seeking input from educators, notes Carol Rasco, a presidential adviser whom Clinton asked to direct the initiative. She has just taken up her post at the Department of Education in recent weeks.

Clinton is looking to his national-service program, Americorps, to spearhead the literacy campaign. He wants 10,000 Americorps workers to serve as "tutor coordinators," helping recruit and manage volunteers. In addition, 30,000 reading specialists would oversee and train the 1 million volunteer tutors.

Use of the embattled Americorps program is not helping bolster the literacy plan. In Washington, comments are being made that it is "just another way to keep Americorps volunteers busy," Finn says.

Americorps director Harris Wofford disagrees, saying the president's decision to push for literacy is independent of his support for Americorps. Moreover, "we're not talking about a federal 1 million tutoring corps," he says. "We're talking about adding to all the literacy, and tutoring, and mentoring programs that are going on locally."

"We see this as locally designed," Ms. Rasco confirms. Individual programs will determine how students needing help will be identified and whether they will be tutored in school, after school, on weekends, or during summers. Careful not to offend educators, she adds, "We want to work in a way that complements what goes on through in-class instruction."

"Certainly the kind of help and assistance that might be available through such a program, if it's structured right, would be very helpful," says a cautious Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union.

While most educators welcome the president's emphasis on primary-level literacy, they want more details. Many teachers feel they already have enough to do without taking on the extra duty of supervising volunteers.

"It's going to be up to principals, working with the teachers, to see that this isn't an added burden," says Carole Kennedy, principal at New Haven Elementary School in Columbia, Mo., and president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

In St. Louis, Americorps members have been working with students in 16 schools for three years, mostly helping children do community-service projects and helping teachers in the classroom.

But whether Grisby's tutoring of young Terrence will turn him into a successful reader remains an open question. Despite a letter Terrence wrote to his mother, asking her to spend time reading with him, Grisby is not confident that he is reading much more at home.

Many students at Carter are not reading outside of school, she says. "The TV is their main babysitter, and they're not opening up books and actually reading."

A spate of recent education research suggests that focusing on the preschool years - and especially on getting parents to read more to their children - is a more efficient way to ensure youngsters will be strong readers.

"It would certainly be more appropriate to spend more money on preventing the problem in the first place," says Mildred Winter, executive director of Parents as Teachers, an early-childhood program that encourages parents to read to their children from infancy.

Ms. Winter was among a group of educators in Washington who were asked to help shape Clinton's reading initiative. "We told them: 'You've got your priorities in reverse. You're trying to fix the problem rather than trying to prevent it,' " she says. "We had hoped that would have some impact on how the dollars were going to be allocated, but evidently not so."

Rasco acknowledges that the new research on early-childhood development supports investing in the preschool years. "We will be spending a lot of time on parents as first teachers," she says.

But the reading initiative will not spend a lot of dollars for preschool-age children, in relative terms. The program budget allocates $300,000 for "parents as first teachers" programs.

Says Rasco: "We cannot allow groups of children to just be by the wayside because they are already in school. We need to make certain that they are receiving what they need and not let them just be a forgotten group of children."

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