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Impact Evaluation of the U.S. Department of Education's Student Mentoring Program

NCEE 2009-4047
March 2009

School-Based Mentoring

School-based or student mentoring programs grow out of interest in youth mentoring generally. The rationale for mentoring is that supportive adults can serve as mentors and can help students avoid high-risk activities and make more successful transitions to adulthood (Sipe, 1996; Tierney and Grossman, 2000; Rhodes, 2002). Youth mentoring programs have emerged as a means to further these goals by connecting at-risk youth with volunteer mentors from outside the family who serve as role models, provide support and guidance, expose students to new things, and provide academic assistance. School- (as opposed to community-) based mentoring programs are programs where typically teachers and other school staff target and identify academically and/or social/emotionally atrisk students whom they feel would benefit from mentoring. These programs then pair these at-risk students with volunteers who meet with them regularly at school (typically one hour per week) either during or after the school day (Portwood and Ayers, 2005).2 Theoretically, school-based programs also allow mentors and students to focus on academic-related activities such as homework help, tutoring, and reading (Portwood and Ayers, 2005). However, based on prior research findings, programs have been shown to vary widely with regards to the amount of time spent on academics versus social activities (Herrera, Sipe, and McClanahan, 2000; Herrera, Grossman, Kauh, Feldman, and McMaken, 2007).

Over the past several years, school-based mentoring programs have become an increasingly popular way to provide students with mentors (Herrera et al., 2007). This may be due to, at least in part, a number of perceived advantages over community-based mentoring. For example, school-based programs tend to cost less to run per relationship than community-based mentoring programs due to more in-kind contributions from the schools and less overhead (Rhodes, 2002; Portwood and Ayers, 2005; however, see Herrera et al, 2007). However, there are also limitations to the school-based approach. The biggest difference is that school-based mentoring tends to be less intensive than community-based mentoring. For example, the school calendar generally constrains the maximum length of a match to approximately 9 months, which is less than the minimum 12 months of mentoring recommended by those in the mentoring field (e.g., Rhodes, 2002). In practice, the actual length of the school-based mentoring relationship may be even shorter. For example, studies have found a 2- to 3-month time lag from the beginning of the school year in getting students matched with mentors (Hansen, 2005, Herrera, et al., 2000; Karcher, 2008) so that actual mentoring takes place for a period of 5 to 6 months for approximately 6 hours a month (Herrera, et al., 2000). In addition, the school-based approach has often relied heavily on high-school and college-age mentors, which, on one hand, increases the number of students a program can serve, but also can limit the length of the mentoring relationship given the mentors’ inability to commit beyond a semester or school year (Herrera et al., 2007). Furthermore, the meta-analytic review of DuBois, Holloway, Valentine, and Harris (2002) regarding the effectiveness of mentoring programs for youth suggests that school-based mentoring programs may be less effective than community-based efforts. In short, compared to community-based mentoring programs, the constraints placed upon school-based mentoring often result in more limited opportunities for students to develop enduring, trusting relationships with adult role models. In turn, school-based mentoring may not be able to provide a sufficient “dosage” of mentoring to achieve lasting positive effects on students

Research findings on the impacts of school-based mentoring on student outcomes have been limited by weak research designs, small sample sizes, and non-objective measures. However, there is a growing body of more rigorous research that has produced a range of impact findings, generally not sustainable over time. For example, the recent experimental impact evaluation of Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) school-based efforts suggests that school-based programs have the potential to improve students’ academic performance, behavior in school, and school attendance (Herrera et al., 2007). These results, however, with the exception of skipping school, did not endure into the following school year. In contrast, a recent experimental evaluation of another school-based mentoring program (the Study of Mentoring in the Learning Environment (SMILE)) revealed small, positive effects of mentoring on students’ connectedness to peers and on self-esteem and social skills, but not on academic outcomes (Karcher, 2008). Finally, two experimental studies of the Across Ages mentoring program, which has characteristics of both school- and community-based programming (Taylor, LoSciuto, Foz, and Sonkowsko, 1999; Aseltine, Dupre, and Lamlein, 2000), found that the program led to lower levels of student substance use and problem behaviors and stronger attachment of students to school and their families, which were not sustained beyond the end of the school year.


2 While school-based mentoring is typified by mentors and students meeting on school grounds, it does not exclude mentors and students also getting together at other locations.