Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Knowing the Research: What next?

So, now that I've given a brief review of a few mentoring studies in my last two posts and you are now familiar with a handful of the most relevant papers, it is clear that mentoring works. I also addressed some best practices, strategies that maximize the effectiveness of tutor/mentor programs in delivering positive outcomes to youth. However, even if we know the best ways to engage youth with a tutor/mentor and that this mentor/mentee relationship is overwhelmingly beneficial for the youth involved, this still does not ensure that these types of programs will receive ample resources, in terms of both $$$ and volunteers. So, why isn't there more research trying to determine the best ways to mobilize dedicated volunteers and, equally importantly, the most effective ways to retain these volunteers over the long-term, so that the youth can achieve maximum benefits from a relationship with a supportive mentor as they mature and face the struggles of coming of age in a high-poverty neighborhood?

As tutor/mentor programs all over the world find themselves operating on very limited resources, being able to effectively recruit, engage and retain the volunteers who run the programs day-to-day, is absolutely crucial. Therefore, research aiming to determine the most effective ways to keep volunteers engaged in tutor/mentor programs has the potential to make an enormous impact in the lives of countless youth. Additionally, most of the mentoring research focuses on mentoring programs using a Big Brothers/Big Sisters model. However, there are many programs, including ours here at Cabrini Connections, that vary significantly from that model. For instance, the Big Brothers/Big Sisters model emphasizes one on one relationships between mentor and mentee through both in-school, site based mentoring, as well as through one-on-one community-based mentoring where the mentors and mentees meet in the community doing activities of their choosing. How effective is our model compared to the Big Brothers/Big Sisters model or compared to various school-based mentoring programs? Though youth may not stay with the same mentor year after year at our program due to volunteers dropping-out, does the stability of the program staff and coordinators and the overarching structure of a program like Cabrini Connections, with our numerous clubs and other activities, lead to more positive outcomes than programs that do not offer a safe space for youth to come without directly interacting with their mentors? Also, what is the effect of bringing dozens of youth together on a weekly basis to meet with their mentors? Does it lead to better outcomes than simply having youth meet alone with their mentor off-site? Does it lead to the creation of networks of solidarity among the youth who can identify with each other on the basis of shared life experience and work together to improve their situation? Obviously there are a lot of interesting research topics here that are yet to be explored and have the potential to make a great impact in the way tutor/mentor programs are run.

Under the auspices of The Tutor/Mentor Connection, we have a number of online surveys that we use to glean data from the 200+ programs that comprise our network. This will eventually result in a wealth of information that can be used to determine common struggles and problems among various tutor/mentor programs and the most effective strategies for addressing these challenges. However, we are only a small staff and though we can potentially use this data to help identify potential areas of collaboration between programs and possible solutions to common problems, like volunteer retainment, we lack the necessary resources to be able to conduct controlled experiments to quantitatively compare and contrast our methods with those employed by other programs and publish this information in relevant publications. However, there are thousands of researchers in the fields of education and social policy who can and should take an interest in this area and these research questions in order to help hundreds of tutor/mentor organizations like ours in offering the best possible programs to the youth that they serve. Don't we owe it to the kids?

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