Lessons about Tutoring and Addressing Learning Loss from Reading Partners

Dean Elson and Robin Jacob

Many schools are expanding tutoring services and personalized instruction to address learning loss caused by the pandemic. This episode features Reading Partners, a successful national nonprofit that mobilizes community volunteers to provide one-on-one tutoring to students who struggle with reading in under-resourced elementary schools. MDRC has been working with Reading Partners for nearly 15 years to help document and improve the program’s effectiveness. MDRC’s rigorous evaluation of Reading Partners found that its program boosted three different measures of reading proficiency, including reading comprehension, for second- to fifth-graders.

In the first episode of a series celebrating MDRC’s 50th anniversary and our longtime collaborators, join Leigh Parise as she talks with Dean Elson, Chief Knowledge Officer at Reading Partners, and Robin Jacob, a Research Professor at Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan and Co-Director of the Youth Policy Lab. Jacob helped lead MDRC’s evaluation of Reading Partners and is currently studying their distance learning model, Reading Partners Connects. Elson and Jacob discuss MDRC’s study of Reading Partners, how to get volunteers to teach reading effectively, and how technology will continue to play a role in tutoring.

Leigh Parise: Policymakers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? Welcome to Evidence First, a podcast from MDRC that explores the best evidence available on what works to improve the lives of people with low incomes. I'm your host, Leigh Parise.

In 2024, MDRC will celebrate its 50th anniversary. For those of you who don't know, MDRC was founded in 1974 with just a handful of people in a tiny office in New York City. Since then, we've grown into an organization with more than 300 talented staff and four offices across the country. To commemorate our 50th anniversary, we're having conversations with some of our longstanding partners. These are people we've been really lucky to work with and grow with together. Today, we'll talk about Reading Partners, a successful national nonprofit mobilizing community volunteers to provide one-on-one tutoring to students who struggle with reading in underresourced elementary schools. MDRC's rigorous evaluation of Reading Partners found that, after one year, Reading Partners boosted three different measures of reading proficiency—including reading comprehension—for second- to fifth-graders. The topic of tutoring and personalized instruction is more timely than ever as schools continue to face the need to address learning loss caused by the pandemic.

Today, I talk with Dean Elson, chief knowledge officer at Reading Partners, and Robin Jacob, a research professor at the Survey Research Center at Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan and faculty codirector of the Youth Policy Lab. We are fortunate to also have had Robin as a longtime research collaborator with MDRC.

Robin and Dean, welcome to Evidence First.

Okay, so let's start at the top. MDRC and Reading Partners have been working together now for over a decade, so take us back a little bit and let's talk about that first project that we worked on together. What was it about? And then, what did we find?

Dean Elson: Yeah, sure. Back in 2011, Reading Partners was one of a handful of recipients of a Social Innovation Fund (or SIF) grant award. It came through the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation at the time, and it came with a requirement for a rigorous evaluation by an independent or third party. So we contracted with MDRC to be our evaluation partner, and we were really excited about it. We were an organization that had started in 1999 through three women community leaders out in California. We were beginning to replicate the program across California and starting to get bigger, and we knew internally that there was some evidence of our impact, but we really wanted that third-party validation. The SIF grant provided that opportunity—not only to provide more funding for us to replicate the program and to get larger, but to better understand the evidence behind the impact of the program. Robin, I'll turn it over to you if you want to share more of the details.

Robin Jacob: Yeah. We were able to evaluate Reading Partners in 19 schools across the country. We had over 1,100 students that participated in the evaluation, and it was a really exciting study for a number of reasons. At the end of the day, we found positive impacts of Reading Partners' tutoring, which was really exciting. And [it was] particularly exciting that we found impacts on reading comprehension for older students, which I think is rare for literacy interventions. We were also really able to dig into the implementation of Reading Partners and understand what was going on on the ground, to look at both the students who were receiving Reading Partners and their counterparts who did not receive Reading Partners and compare what the two groups of students were getting.

One of the other interesting things, I think, from that study was that the students who were in the control group—who didn't receive Reading Partners—didn't receive nothing. Schools don't leave their students who are struggling in reading without additional support. So those students were getting a fair amount of additional support even though they weren't getting Reading Partners. And yet Reading Partners still had a positive impact on the students who received the program. So I feel really good about the study and what we were able to find over the course of the year that we were involved in those schools.

Leigh Parise: I really appreciate that very specific explanation about how it's not like this study was comparing Reading Partners' students to students who are just sitting in class not doing anything, but rather were also getting additional supports. I feel like that's probably particularly important for people to hear now because, as we said, this is a time where schools are really trying to figure out how to make sure that students are getting all the supports they need. I will admit here that I'm especially biased as a parent of a second- and fifth-grader, and [as] a former first- and third-grade teacher. So I think about this, and I'm like, "Yes, really, we need more things like this. It's so important." I'm just thrilled that we get to highlight the work that you are all doing.

I think something that's really incredibly impressive—and people probably don't quite realize how challenging and unique it is—is that you've got volunteers who are not teachers, and you're getting them to teach reading effectively. It's hard for teachers to teach reading effectively. Dean, I think it'd be great to hear a little bit more from you about how you make that happen. What do you think of as Reading Partners' special sauce?

Dean Elson: I think we would say it's the community engagement piece. First, we believe everyone can make a difference in a student's life, and volunteers can make a difference in literacy skill development. There's plenty of research—and there had been even before that study back in 2012, 2013, with MDRC—showing that tutors who are teachers or even paraprofessionals could be effective tutors, but there wasn't a lot of great evidence about volunteers being able to be effective tutors.

So I would say the secret sauce is a combination of the fact that our volunteers are really committed, dedicated people who come to Reading Partners with the idea that they want to help support students in their learning journeys and put them on a path to proficiency in reading, which is what we talk about with them. And especially in the last few years, in the wake of COVID-19 and all the unfinished learning that happened, there were other realities that came to mind, and it was really clear that this is about trying to improve the reality of what's happening on the ground and creating more equitable opportunities for students to learn.

So our secret sauce is those volunteers, some of whom have been with us for more than a decade, but also our proprietary curriculum. Back in 2012, 2013, when we started that other evaluation with MDRC, I was a fairly new employee at Reading Partners and seeing things in our curriculum, in our approach, that I didn't think were actually as strong as they could be. So while we were excited with the results, we also knew that we had more work to do. We were constantly improving that curriculum and the lessons that we build. They're built on a deliberate scope and sequence, and we follow what's now referred to as the science of reading—all that evidence about what makes for good reading instruction. We believe we can teach volunteers and help them follow a scripted approach.

And then the other key ingredient for our program is having an AmeriCorps member. We're a proud national service organization. We have been since 2010, through the Corporation for National and Community Service. Our AmeriCorps members play a lot of different roles at Reading Partners, but one [role is as] a program coordinator based in the school or in the community-based program, and they're the ones who are there to support and coach the tutors who are volunteers with us. So we really think you can be an effective tutor with the right combination of supports and resources.

Robin Jacob: I will say, that is something that I've been very impressed [by] with Reading Partners throughout the time that we've been working together. They really have a structure that sets up tutors for success. Even back in 2012, 2013, there was a structured curriculum, and tutors told us, "I really appreciated the fact that I knew exactly what I was supposed to do with students when I arrived in the tutoring room. I really appreciated that there was an AmeriCorps volunteer there whom I could ask for help if I wasn't sure what to do next." It makes it easy for tutors to be successful, and I think that keeps them coming back, in addition to being able to provide quality instruction for the students with whom they're working.

Leigh Parise: All right, one question I have is about the way that the tutors are working with students. If I'm a Reading Partner student, am I always seeing the same tutor? Or might there actually be some variation, and part of it is that you've been so thoughtful about what the curriculum is that that's sort of okay if there's some shifting in who I'm seeing all the time?

Dean Elson: Right. The program is designed to make sure our students get two tutoring sessions a week, but that second tutoring session could be from another tutor. We also often have volunteers who sign up with us and say, "I can't commit to a specific time every week, or a specific day, but can I be a substitute teacher? So when you're doing makeup sessions on, say, Fridays, I'd be able to come into the building, and this is the range of time that I have available." So for us, the commitment is to making sure that we provide those two sessions a week. We have tracking tools and resources and approaches to make sure we're tracking that attendance for students, and when they're not getting two sessions a week, trying to improve on and create make-up sessions with other tutors.

So it's not so much the individual. It's more about whoever the individual is on that given day, that they have that lesson plan. They know what they need to do. They come in a little bit early to prepare for that lesson. There's a way to follow the notes that the previous tutor from the last tutoring session wrote down—about what the student is working on and what's coming next. So you have a little bit of a preview. You know what the lesson is [that] you're going to deliver. And yeah, it doesn't have to be the same tutor every single time. We do believe in that relationship and that connection, but you could have, as a student, a relationship and a partnership with a tutor on a Tuesday and another tutor on Thursday for several months. And that can be a really positive experience, to actually have two different adults that are helping you learn literacy, but in a fun and creative, innovative way, too.

Robin Jacob: We did look at that in the 2013 study. We explored whether students who had a consistent tutor both days, across the entire school year, performed better than students who had multiple tutors, and we found no difference. The program was equally effective, whether it was a single tutor that was volunteering consistently or if a student had a number of tutors. So I think the program works really well to allow that flexibility for both tutors and students and still ensure that there are positive outcomes.

Leigh Parise: That's huge. Thank you for adding that. All right, Dean, you talked about [how] the tutors might get to school a little bit early. They might get themselves prepared. Tell us now about how Reading Partners is actually expanding literacy support, where students aren't having that in-person connection, but rather working via a new online platform that you have called Reading Partners Connects. Talk to us about that.

Dean Elson: Yeah, I'd love to. Reading Partners Connects was actually an idea back in 2019. We had a couple of our different regional teams, [including] one in our South Carolina region. We were based in Charleston, South Carolina. There were volunteers in Charleston that were going up to two hours away to a more rural location, and it's a lot to drive two hours in one direction and two hours back for a 45-minute tutoring session. So if those tutors had more time in their day, they would go to the school and maybe do several tutoring sessions back to back or be there for a significant period of time. But we weren't able to serve as many students in those schools as we might [students] who are more centrally located, let's say, in a specific community or neighborhood. But also New York City . . . in New York City, you might have a lot of tutors who are available volunteers within Manhattan, but it might be harder to get to different boroughs, taking subways and such—the same kind of challenge.

We started talking about the idea of what, at that time, we called distance tutoring. Well, maybe we could do one session in person, and another session later in the week could be remote, and the tutor wouldn't have to be in the building in order to provide the tutoring. We were beginning to go down that road and consider what that would look like. How would we build it? How different would it need to be from our in-person materials? And we were literally in the midst of that conversation, thinking about how we might build for a pilot, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. By the end of March 2020, all of our tutoring stopped in all of our school locations. We were in about 200 schools at the time around the country. So we just rapidly moved that idea forward. We were trying to figure out how to provide immediate support to students who are now home, and so we had a couple different ideas and different things we were implementing.

Reading Partners Connects really began at that time. In a very short period of time, we figured out how to pull together a new, somewhat different curriculum, still following the science of reading and our general idea of the scope and sequence and the lessons we had in our traditional in-person program. But how do you do that online using audio-video conferencing? What does the tutor do? What does the student do? We learned a lot over the last three years, and we're really excited. We've been building a brand-new platform since January. We're going to launch that new Reading Partners Connects platform on October 2nd, and we're really excited about the future of that. We began writing and publishing our own books this year as well, to better represent the students that we serve. Those books are embedded both in our traditional in-person curriculum but also as e-books or digital books in this new online platform.

We've got new grants from the philanthropic community and a federal grant that's allowing us to expand Reading Partners Connects to serve thousands more students in the coming years. And we've actually started piloting new partnerships, where we've decided we've been in the direct service business. We hire AmeriCorps members and coach and train them. We hire volunteers or find volunteers and coach and train them. That's a lot of work every year in just 12 regions around the country. We know the need is tens of thousands—well, really millions—across the country. So how could we better use something like Reading Partners Connects, by helping others learn how to do it? How [can we help others] learn and take on what we have learned over the last 25 years or so?

And that pilot, over the last 18 months or so, has been in a few different locations where we don't have anyone on the ground. So they're basically training and technical assistance partnerships, where we license the Reading Partners Connects platform to you. We teach you how to use it, and we provide ongoing coaching and training for you to implement it with your people on the ground. So you might have tutors. You might have volunteers. You might have AmeriCorps members or teachers or paraprofessionals. And you can use our training and resources. Our goal is to continue to increase that over the next couple of years and specifically to . . . And actually, Robin's engaged in this effort as well. We're going down the path and launching a new, rigorous RCT (randomized control trial) evaluation this year. It'll go for the next two years. We're really excited to see what that brings about in terms of evidence of the new online model and the impact for our students in the online model compared to controls.

Leigh Parise: Oh, it’s really exciting to hear about some of these shifts. I feel like somewhere in this conversation there's that phrase, "Necessity is the mother of innovation," but maybe with a little bit of an asterisk. And the asterisk is that it helps if you were also already getting prepared for it. It just seems like Reading Partners was really so well set up to figure out how to pivot and how to innovate in order to meet the needs of a whole different variety of schools and districts. So thanks for sharing that. Robin, can you talk to us a little bit about the role that you and MDRC are playing in this new expansion and the new research that Dean mentioned?

Robin Jacob: Absolutely. We are conducting another rigorous evaluation of the Reading Partners Connects program. We're modeling it on the first evaluation—collecting the same kinds of implementation data, trying to understand what the control group is getting, and measuring the same outcomes. So we'll really be able to have a sense of how Reading Partners Connects is working in schools. What impact does it have on students? Do we see impacts across the grades? Do we see impacts across a variety of different literacy outcomes? [We are] really excited about seeing the results and seeing what we can learn. We are having our first schools starting to get consent forms and randomize students, so it's off and running. We've got two years to explore and learn a little bit more about Reading Partners Connects.

Leigh Parise: It feels especially important to have the implementation component here, to really understand that, for the students who are getting Reading Partners Connects—and for the students who are not getting it—what are they getting? Because, obviously, this is a time where schools are really trying to figure out how to change what they're doing to better support students as they've been looking to recover from the pandemic. I think that'll have some really interesting information and useful information for the field.

It feels like one of the things that schools are certainly struggling with is that, we all know that personalized instruction and tutoring is really important for students, especially given the unfinished learning or learning loss caused by the pandemic, but there're also a lot of challenges, like finding time in a student's day or finding and training the tutors. Can you talk a little bit about how you're addressing some of those challenges or about others that have been coming up?

Dean Elson: Yeah, I mean, I would go back to that point about this being a really critical time. That a lot of schools and districts and community organizations, after-school programs, summer programs are trying to support students with all that unfinished learning that happened, right? We're seeing that in major reports that are coming out. It wasn't just learning loss that happened during the pandemic; it's continuing on. Reading Partners is focused on serving students, kindergarten through Grade 4. A lot of those students in the pandemic were [kindergarteners], first- and second-graders that are now in upper elementary school and about to go to middle school.

What I'm really excited about is actually in the last two to three years what I would call maybe a burgeoning field of tutoring, where there are many more supports, investments both federally and through the philanthropic community, and a coming together of more organizations to try and talk with one another more across lines, rather than doing individual programs and all of us fighting for the same money that might be out there to support our different programs and approaches. What are we all learning, and how can we share that with one another and take those learnings in to figure out how to improve our programs? So that ongoing investment is going to be really important in the building of community.

I think we also have been seeing more of the evidence being used, which is improving the quality of the different programs that are out there. I think what's great to hear about is that districts and schools, more regularly, [their] leaders are asking, "Well, tell me more about the evidence behind your program." We love that we have the evidence that we've built over the last decade or so, and we know we have to keep learning. Those challenges on the ground are real, both for the evaluation Robin was just talking about and we're going to carry forward, but also just programming.

We're really struggling in some places with getting enough time during the day to operate our program because now there are many more math tutoring programs, or social-emotional learning programs, or others that are also interventions that are taking students out of regular class time. Or you might have blocks of time during the day for English language arts or math when you're not allowed to pull students out for one-on-one support. There's just less time available during the day, in a lot of cases, for us to support students. So again, increasingly, we're into the after-school space when needed and necessary.

And then I just think it's an ongoing series of dialogues that our program directors and program staff on the ground have with school leaders and teachers about when it would be appropriate and okay to pull students out and to work with them. And then again, with the Connects program, I mean, potentially in the next few years, we would be looking at after-school [hours], evenings, or even weekends, potentially, thinking about what are the logistics and the operational components of supporting that, because that would be different than the way we run the programs now. But yeah, those are a couple different things.

Robin Jacob: I'll just piggyback on that and say that I think one of the things that's so impressive about Reading Partners is that they are flexible and adaptable and, I want to say, scrappy. Maybe that's not quite the right word. But I think this was true back in 2013, where the AmeriCorps volunteers were really intentional about making sure that every kid got two tutoring sessions a week and doing what it took to make that work. And I see the same thing now. There are scheduling constraints. All the programmatic, logistical problems that Dean raises are very real. Reading Partner staff just sort of say, "Okay, well, we're going to figure it out. We're going to figure out how to make it work. Kids need the tutoring, and we're going to switch things around and make these adjustments to make it work." I think it's one of the strengths of the Reading Partners organization, that they have a can-do attitude and try to make it work given whatever logistical constraints there are.

Leigh Parise: Thank you for adding that, Robin. I was sitting here thinking, "Oh, we ended on a question about challenges, and we need something to shift us to what's the positive piece here." I really appreciate what you shared about having that approach of, "Look, here's what it takes. There's a person who's willing to figure it out and acknowledge the real challenges that schools are facing and figure out how can we—as an organization, as Reading Partners—do what we need to do in order to meet schools where they are and adapt as best we can." That feels really promising. Is there anything else that either of you want to make sure you get out there?

Dean Elson: I think one thing we're beginning to keep our eye on and pay attention to is the reality of more and more technology in school buildings. Obviously, it's been around in students' lives for many years. But particularly in the last year or so, [with] the advent of AI-assisted technology and programs, we're seeing a lot more of that. Which I think is exciting, right? There are new innovations and possibilities for supporting students in different ways, but it also has dangers or risks to it. So I think as a field, that's going to be important for all of us, including the research and evaluation field, those of us providing tutoring or interventions or other supports. What does that look like? What's the role, still, of humans?

There are ways in which, I think, we can do and use technology that can be supportive . . . Where are the guardrails? But where and in what ways are the humans still involved to help students make good decisions about using those tools? For us, just as a program, I can see us thinking through how we might use AI in the future, but making sure it doesn't create more inequity when we're trying to do the opposite. That's a really important thing that's begun to be a conversation within Reading Partners and, I think, probably more organizations as well.

Leigh Parise: Thank you. I think this was a really engaging discussion. And I think it's really exciting to get to highlight partners like Reading Partners as we approach our 50th anniversary, because you're clearly thinking about the big challenges that are being faced right now by schools and how to address them. So thank you for being so open in this discussion today. This was great.

Robin Jacob: It's great to be here, and thank you for having us.

Dean Elson: Thanks for having us. Loved the conversation.

Leigh Parise: To learn more about this work, visit mdrc.org or visit our friends at Reading Partners at readingpartners.org. Did you enjoy this episode? Subscribe to the Evidence First podcast for more.

About Evidence First

Policymakers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? MDRC’s Evidence First podcast features experts—program administrators, policymakers, and researchers—talking about the best evidence available on education and social programs that serve people with low incomes.

About Leigh Parise

Leigh PariseEvidence First host Leigh Parise plays a lead role in MDRC’s education-focused program-development efforts and conducts mixed-methods education research. More