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Education Commentary

Volunteers Are No Cure-All, But They Can Nourish Schools

By Gilbert T. Sewall — December 05, 1990 5 min read

Volunteer activity in American schools evokes heartfelt, nearly universal enthusiasm. An estimated 1.3 million adults give time to the nation’s schools each year, and their contributions are rightfully hailed. But the realities of educational volunteerism are far more complicated than the images.

At a time of concern about saturated taxes, public debt at all levels, and general educational quality, Americans need to guard against overestimating what volunteers can be expected to accomplish. Volunteers are not a substitute for trained teachers and staff. They are at best a supplemental resource to those who carry out the central tasks of teaching and academic preparation of students.

The distinction is important. Well-meaning people outside education--including policymakers--often assume that volunteers provide magical added benefits to schools and thereby ensure school improvement.

According to this logic, the more volunteers, the better. In recent years, a number of hastily conceived Congressional proposals have sought to expand school volunteer activity by forgiving student loans. However, an infusion of untrained and indebted young labor is not an educational cure-all. It could be a recipe for confusion.

Many volunteers are doing outstanding work, and whatever data exist point to a huge and largely unmeasurable dividend from their services. Their ranks have grown from mothers conducting bake sales to include college students, older Americans, and business people. Although this inclusion point can be overdrawn by groups that have difficulty acknowledging that the core population of volunteers remain fairly old-fashioned Moms and Pops, the number of non-parents in schools is swelling

Tutoring, running clubs and sales, and “helping out around school” still remain central activities, but school volunteerism today includes everything from the operation of elementary science programs to Latin instruction, dental services, and after-school child care.

All this Brownian motion constitutes a resource of great dimensions, and one that has not yet been fully tapped. But we mustn’t pretend that volunteers alone can solve the many problems that face our nation’s schools. Volunteers act at the margin of the curriculum, and they have no formal disciplinary power.

The schools that need the most help are generally the ones less likely to have volunteer programs. This is not surprising. Where parents value participatory education, volunteerism is likely to thrive. In some places, inherent tension exists between paid support staff and volunteers. Elsewhere, students come to school from degraded poverty and afamilial backgrounds. Few parents or anyone else nearby have the time and energy to volunteer for public service. The “free time” and relative financial security which are preconditions to all volunteerism are just not there.

So where should volunteerism strike? Of course, ideally, in the least advantaged schools. But even a corps of volunteers here cannot be expected to shoulder every problem, providing all the conceivable services normally performed by social-welfare agencies. Schools can also reach what labor economists call a point of diminishing return, where too many child-saving cooks stir the pot, each eager to set a new agenda but inadvertently snarling school missions.

Many school districts that do have volunteer programs could improve these programs by sticking to some fairly obvious principles:

  • Match needs of volunteers and schools, providing volunteers with adequate training so they can complement--not duplicate or hinder--faculty efforts.
  • Provide rewards for students and volunteers alike. For students, receiving increased attention can itself promote positive feelings about education. It seems to increase student performance, and even, to use the spongy buzzword of the moment, self-esteem. Volunteers usually find some great private satisfaction in their work, a charitable reality that can be understood but not quantified. They must feel that their time and effort is appreciated, respected, and recognized.
  • Allow teaching staffs to make better use of time. Volunteers should help trained teachers concentrate their energy and skills where they are needed most. Volunteers can be persuaded to do a lot of what are on the surface menial chores, if the chores are fun and there is among the students and volunteers alike a sort of “gang spirit.” Volunteers can be asked to do slightly unpleasant tasks, such as monitoring study halls and patrolling lunchrooms, but they need to feel part of an ineffable “making things better” school spirit that able, quality-minded researchers have tried to codify since the 1970’s.
  • Increase instructional time for students. All volunteer programs should try to increase the time students spend on lessons, review, and homework. No volunteer program should lose sight of the basic academic purpose of schools in an effort to do all things for all children.
  • Extend services that schools cannot provide. Volunteers ideally provide expertise or skills that schools lack and have in short supply. Computer instruction for students--and teachers--provides a behemoth area of opportunity in the 1990’s, especially by enthusiastic and knowledgeable business people who know how the technical animals work.
  • Strengthen bonds between schools and communities. Volunteer programs ideally recruit a broad spectrum of able individuals who otherwise might have no interaction with public education. Twenty years ago, more than 40 percent of the population had school-age children; today the figure may top 25 percent, and the “public” nature of urban schools has become a misnomer. Especially in metro areas, public schools are semi-bonded or not at all bonded to their larger communities. Many, many mothers are working; the schools need outsiders as volunteers.
  • Volunteerism at the local level can be far different from the dreamy hopes that sometimes emanate from terraces in Georgetown or Cambridge. Often, public schools fear public inspection and the meddling of outsiders. A few school officials want volunteers to carry out routine work without complaint--or they may secretly desire more paid aides. The cynical and media-wise among them see volunteerism as a way to reduce community dissatisfaction with mediocre schools. They highlight cosmetic programs, seeking to divert public attention from structural messes.

    This kind of thinking is counterproductive, and it abuses the altruism that makes volunteerism so distinctive. Volunteers are not a panacea, but they can nourish our country’s schools with their skills, commitment, and enthusiasm. Their contribution is too valuable to exaggerate--or to squander.

    A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 1990 edition of Education Week as Volunteers Are No Cure-All, But They Can Nourish Schools


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