The Performance of At-Risk Youth As Tutors

Marty Duckenfield, NDPC

In the United States, approximately one out of four young people leave school before attaining a high school diploma (Public High School Graduates, 1993). While the school completion rate has improved over the last 50 years, the changes in American society and the workforce requirements of its economy demand that the high school completion rate improve even more. The current level is detrimental to the nation's well-being and hope for economic growth since it is estimated that by the year 2000, 90 percent of all jobs in the United States will require more than a high school diploma (What Work Requires, 1991). In fact, some estimates show the jobs of the 21st century will require 14 years of education rather than 12. The National Education Goals Report, in fact, established in 1990 by then President George Bush and the nation's governors, includes as one of its goals that the high school completion rate be increased to 90 percent (National Educational Goals Report, 1991).

What happens to the student who drops out? The impact on society has been noted by Catterall (1986) and its toll is costly: higher unemployment, increase in crime, increase in welfare, and reduced earnings adversely affect the American economy. Most female dropouts leave school due to pregnancy, and the resulting number of households headed by a single parent has grown over the past decades, increasing the poverty rate and the costs to society. Associated costs for crime prevention, the building of prisons, job training, and adult education programs all add to the economic drain on society, not to mention the personal costs—the loss in the potential of so many lives.

Portrait of Our Youth in At-Risk Situations

Much research has been undertaken to identify the students who may drop out of school. Wells (1990) draws a clear picture of the many factors that describe these students we call at-risk. Included in her analysis are the following factors which relate to the student, the family, the school, and the community.

The Student

  • Poor school attitude
  • Low ability level
  • Attendance/Truancy
  • Behavior/discipline problems
  • Pregnancy
  • Drug abuse
  • Poor peer relationships
  • Nonparticipation
  • Friends have dropped out
  • Illness/disability
  • Low self-esteem/self-efficacy

The Family

  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Dysfunctional home life
  • No parent involvement
  • Low parental expectations
  • Non-English speaking home
  • Ineffective parenting/abuse
  • High mobility

The School

  • Conflict between home/school culture
  • Ineffective discipline system
  • Lack of adequate counseling
  • Negative school climate
  • Lack of relevant curriculum
  • Passive instructional strategies
  • Inappropriate use of technology
  • Disregard of student learning styles
  • Retentions/suspensions
  • Low expectations
  • Lack of language instruction

The Community

  • Lack of community support services
  • Lack of community support for schools
  • High incidences of criminal activities
  • Lack of school/community linkages

Cross-Age Tutoring—A Strategy That Works

Tutoring, including cross-age tutoring, has been shown to be one of the most cost-effective strategies used today to enhance the academic performance of struggling students (Berliner & Casanova, 1988; Giesecke, Cartledge, & Gardner, 1993; Hedin, 1987; Levin, 1984; Martino, 1994; Supik, 1991). Tutoring also provides many benefits to both tutees and tutors.

Benefits to Tutees

Tutors provide tutees with much needed role models (Hedin, 1987). Topping (1988) points out that for the tutee, being a "friend" of a high-status older child will most likely increase the younger child's self-esteem. Martino (1994) quotes research that shows that tutees improve not only academically; they also show improvement in communication skills, ability to identify long-range goals, self-confidence, and interpersonal skills.

Benefits to Tutors

Research on programs utilizing students as tutors shows that tutors derive many benefits from their roles as tutors. Cross-age tutors have been shown to perform better than control students on examinations in the subjects being taught (Cohen, Kulik, & Kulik, 1982). Topping (1988) supports the fact of academic gains for tutors. As he points out:

Although the tutors may be covering again material they had been presumed to have mastered, there are nevertheless gains from this process…. Above all, they are likely to remember the material better from experience of the need to put knowledge to some purpose. Many centuries ago Comenius commented, "Qui docet, discit." ("Who teaches, learns.") More recently, Briggs has re-expressed this: "To teach is to learn twice." (p. 4)

Tutors also make substantial gains in the affective realm. Role theory asserts that people conform to the expectations that they and others have for them in their role (Hedin, 1987). Therefore, when tutors and adults offer student tutors respect and admiration, they become respectable and admirable. As Hedin describes it, "the experience of being needed, valued, and respected by another person produces a new view of self as a worthwhile human being" (p. 43). Research in the field shows that serving as tutors increases children's self-concept, improved relationships between peers, reduced absenteeism, and improved classroom behavior (Giesecke et al., 1993).

At-Risk Students As Tutors

Motivation theory, as described in Hamby (1995) illustrates that there is no such thing as an unmotivated individual. Therefore, when we look to at-risk students as potential tutors, we must remember that "they are no different from other students in the mechanisms that determine motivation" (p. 37).

Thus it is no surprise when we look at the data on cross-age tutoring projects using at-risk students as tutors. The Intercultural Development Research Association's (IDRA) Valued Youth Project, a structured program that utilizes at-risk students as cross-age tutors, has data which shows its beneficial impact. Research described by Supik (1991) indicates higher reading grades than the comparison group. The tutors showed a reduced number of disciplinary action referrals after participation in the program while the comparison group raised theirs. The evaluation of the Valued Youth Program showed that tutors gained in their self-concept as measured by the Piers-Harris Children's Self-Concept Scale and Quality of School Life Scale and maintained the self-concept and positive attitude toward school.

IDRA showed that tutees had higher test scores following the tutoring experience. In addition, absenteeism and disciplinary referrals were significantly lower after tutoring.

The research by Giesecke et al. (1993) indicates that at-risk tutors were successful in tutoring younger peers. In addition, the positive impact seen on these at-risk tutors mirrors the results shown by IDRA. Gaustad (1992) underscores the tremendous impact that the tutoring experience has on the at-risk student tutor by noting:

Knowing they are making a meaningful contribution can be a powerful experience—one that most children rarely have, as Allen notes: 'Unfortunately, in our society children are typically the recipients of help from others, rather than the givers of help….The feeling of being useful to others is particularly important for adolescents; being caught between childhood and adulthood, they realize that they are not yet useful and needed members of society.' The impact of this experience may be even greater for at-risk students who have often felt like failures. (p. 12)

Gaustad also cites commentary by researchers who assert that no correlation exists between "A tutor's intellectual credentials and his effectiveness in tutoring" (p. 13). Further, she elaborates on some evidence that shows that students who themselves have struggled in school are more patient and understanding than tutors who have not experienced difficulty in learning.

Building Resiliency in At-Risk Students

While not specifically examining cross-age tutoring, the field of prevention's growing emphasis on the "protective factors" and the building of "resiliency" provides strong evidence to support this strategy. Benard's (1991) synthesis of the research base in the prevention field looks at the longitudinal studies of youth from high- risk situations who became healthy, competent adults. These successful adults seemed to have been "stress-resistant" or "resilient," in spite of severe stress and adversity in their lives. The so-called "protective factors" that can reverse the predictions of such negative outcomes as drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, gang membership, and dropping out of school, have been categorized by Benard. Her research shows that those youth who became successful adults had received three protective factors from either the home, school, or community.

Those factors were:

  • caring and support from another person;
  • high expectations of the youth; and
  • opportunities for participation in meaningful activities (Benard, 1991).

Tutors who are given the responsibility to teach a younger child could build resiliency through all three protective factors: caring and support can be provided by their tutees, peers in a tutoring project, and their teacher; high expectations are inherent in the opportunity of the tutoring assignment; and their participation in the tutoring project itself provides involvement in a meaningful activity which asks them to take a responsible role.

Tutees can develop some of the protective factors through the tutoring experience. Their tutors provide them with the caring and support so needed and the tutor's efforts to raise their academic achievement can contribute to an increased expectation for their school work. The resiliency research strongly supports the assertions of those who advocate the use of at-risk youth as tutors. In fact, its thesis supports the idea that this two-pronged approach to dropout prevention is what one would call a win-win situation—one where both tutors and tutees benefit.

Service Learning: A Format for Cross-Age Tutoring

Analysis of successful cross-age tutoring programs shows that the most effective tutoring takes place in structured formats. Gaustad (1992) lists many criteria for a successful tutoring program: training, instructional materials, selection of tutors and tutees, the matching of tutors and tutees, ongoing support, sufficient time set aside for tutoring, communicating with parents and the community, and evaluation.

Service learning has surged to the forefront in U.S. education reform. A grassroots movement, service learning became part of the bipartisan National and Community Service Act of 1993. Because of this legislation, millions of dollars in federal grants have become available to local schools and community-based organizations to implement service learning programs.

Service learning combines community service with learning activities. It allows:

students [to] learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service experiences that meet actual community needs and that are coordinated in collaboration with the school and community. [Service learning] is integrated into the students' academic curriculum or provides structured time for a student to think, talk, or write about what the student did and saw during the actual service activity. [It] provides students with opportunities to use newly acquired skills and knowledge in real-life situations in their own communities. [It also] enhances what is taught in school by extending student learning beyond the classroom and into the community and helps to foster the development of a sense of caring for others (National and Community Service Act of 1990).

Its four components—preparation, action, reflection, and celebration—provide a framework for successful programs. Duckenfield and Swanson (1992) have discussed the essential components of service learning. Preparation consists of the learning activities that take place prior to the service itself. Prior to their service experience, students must understand what is expected of them as well as what they can expect from the service project.

Preparation components include the following:

  • identifying and analyzing the problem;
  • selecting and planning the project; and
  • training and orientation.

Action needs to meet certain criteria. It must:

  • be meaningful;
  • have academic integrity;
  • provide for student ownership;
  • have adequate supervision; and
  • be developmentally appropriate.

Reflection enables students to critically think about their service experience. When students reflect on their experiences, they think about them, write about them, share them with others, and learn from them. The reflection time is a structured opportunity for students to learn from their experiences.

They can reflect through:

  • discussion;
  • reading;
  • writing; and/or
  • projects.

Celebration is the component of service learning which recognizes students for their contributions. It also provides closure to an ongoing activity. Society needs to let young people know that their contributions are valued.

There are many ways that this final component of service learning can be implemented, including:

  • school assemblies;
  • certificates;
  • pizza parties;
  • joint celebration with service recipients; and
  • special media coverage.


Cross-age tutoring projects, including those involving at-risk youth, can be successful for both tutor and tutee. The service learning framework can ensure success for all such tutoring projects. Service learning does more than provide a framework to maximize the effectiveness of the cross-age tutoring project using at-risk students as tutors. Due to the greater awareness schools and communities have of service learning and the increase in funding sources, it also becomes a vehicle for expanding tutoring efforts in our schools and communities. The subsequent reduction in the nation's dropout rate that this strategy could produce would be of great benefit towards meeting the National Education Goal.

For more information, contact the National Dropout Prevention Center, Clemson University, 209 Martin Street, Clemson, SC 29634-0736, 864-656-2599,


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