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A Self-Help Reform Model

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That schools are in a long-term crisis is the ultimate truism, repeated ad nauseam for the last 30 years. Head Start does not have enough teachers; classes are too large; young people upon graduation cannot write a decent letter or comprehend an essay written at the level of The New York Times.

It is apparent that the schools need more help--resources, money, staff, knowledge. However, it would seem that over the past two decades with increased funding schools have not done a significantly better job. This may be due to the new tasks the schools are required to deal with, such as combatting teenage pregnancy, providing AIDS education, and so on. But in an "era of limits,'' with enormous attention focused on reducing the federal budget deficit, the chances for large increases in funding for the schools do not seem to be strong.

Perhaps we've been approaching the problem from the wrong end. Perhaps the question is not "What can be done to help our schools?'' but rather, "What unutilized resources already exist that will help the schools help themselves?''

I would suggest, therefore, that instead of putting all our hopes and energies onto the funding bandwagon, we give serious thought to a powerful educational resource that is already here for the taking--and that will go a long way toward helping reduce our nation's educational deficit. This resource exists within the very woof and warp of the school system; it is the student body itself.

What I am suggesting, in brief, is an institutional self-help model based on the notion of cross-age tutoring: older kids teaching younger kids, and earning academic credits for their efforts.

Under such a system, high school students will tutor Head Start preschoolers plus youngsters in kindergarten through 3rd grade on a scheduled, one-to-one basis several hours a week. The program will be offered to interested high school students as a regular class in their high school curriculum (or as a community-service requirement), with the understanding that the tutoring component serves as a field experience for the course. Students, moreover, will receive credit rather than money for their work. Which means, of course, that the cost of such a program is minimal to both taxpayers and the community at large.

All of this is built on the well-known research data showing that cross-age tutoring is highly effective. Its effectiveness will be greatly magnified by the preparation, the intensive training the tutors receive and the course that provides a whole background and context as well as continuity and reinforcement of the tutoring. The natural power of cross-age tutoring will be greatly enhanced in this proposed model.

Research data as well as experience in the schools also suggest that the tutors themselves benefit a great deal from doing the tutoring. The high school students will advance their own learning considerably by tutoring (learning through teaching). There will be a double gain; both the tutors and the tutees will benefit at practically no cost. This will add greatly to the resources available to the school. It should lead to a greater improvement in the Head Start youngster's performance and the maintenance of the benefits acquired in Head Start as youngsters go through the first three grades.

Whichever way you look at it, it's a no-lose proposition for everyone. In fact, if these and similar programs were sponsored on a large scale in our institutions of learning over the next few years, an entire change in the ethos of the educational system could conceivably come about, a change born of qualities that are increasingly rare in American schools today--group cooperation, mutual trust, and the natural impulse to help others.

Frank Riessman is the co-director of the Peer Research Laboratory at the City University of New York.

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