To the Editor:
School-based mentoring is one of the fastest-growing forms of community service in the United States, serving close to a million students annually. Mentoring is an excellent example of the volunteerism that President Barack Obama has called for in recent national addresses. Yet the administration’s fiscal 2010 budget would eliminate all federal funding for the U.S. Department of Education’s Student Mentoring Program (“Obama Budget Choices Scrutinized,” May 20, 2009).
The decision rests in large part on a recent Institute of Education Sciences evaluation, which showed that school-based mentoring, as practiced by many programs around the country, failed to increase grades or test scores. Just two years ago, however, another rigorous evaluation of such mentoring found that teachers reported improved schoolwork from their mentored students. How do we reconcile this difference? Is the government taking the right course of action?
To understand these apparently contradictory findings, it is important to note that the earlier evaluation answered the question of what effects a well-run school-based mentoring program can have, while the second evaluation considered the effects of average programs. Findings from both studies reveal that strong programs can improve academic performance, while programs that don’t incorporate best practices cannot. Interestingly, both types of programs have resulted in increased attendance.
So, should the government pull funding? These are tough times, when tough, unpleasant decisions must be made. But the government’s choice is not necessarily between all or nothing. Rather than zeroing school-based mentoring out of the budget, the government could restrict its funding to programs that incorporate best practices—the kind of programs that have been shown to produce results. It could take stock of what’s working and invest in strengthening models with the potential to make a difference. A strong infrastructure for service is now in place in thousands of American schools. Why not use it?
Policymakers, advocacy organizations, and funders have a critically important role to play in holding school-based mentoring to a higher standard. A shared vision of excellence and a commitment to scientifically informed guidance and support will ensure that the many volunteers who have already been mobilized to serve our nation’s youths can become more effective agents of change.
Department of Psychology
University of Massachusetts Boston
A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2009 edition of Education Week as Finding the Middle Ground On Mentoring in Schools