Tutoring programs for young children have been promoted widely in the US since the 1990s as promising strategies for improving academic performance, particularly in reading and maths. Bill Clinton’s America Reads Challenge, for example, urges higher education institutions to increase their commitment to volunteerism within the surrounding local communities.The benefits of tutoring provided by accredited professionals are known but the evidence for tutoring programs staffed by adult volunteers or college students is rather slimmer. A systematic review of the literature on volunteer tutoring could find only 21 articles that met the criteria, namely randomized field trials published between January 1985 and August 2005 that examined academic impacts, assessed programs for students in grades K–8 and considered effectiveness.For most the sample sizes were very small: only three included more than 100 children. So although an average effect size of 0.30 was identified for the impact on reading outcomes for elementary pupils – it is possible, based on the general findings in relation to sample size, that for larger programs with a more diffuse focus the outcomes would be less significant.This calls into question the value of large-scale university partnerships such as the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project (WPTP), which was part of the Clinton initiative and uses University of Pennsylvania students as volunteer tutors. The majority of those tutored are elementary and middle school students (between the ages of five and 12) who are are helped for around an hour a week from late-September until mid-April.Gary Ritter and Rebecca Maynard of the University of Pennsylvania undertook a randomized field trial in which pupils with low test scores from 11 West Philadelphia elementary schools who enrolled in the program were randomly assigned to the tutoring group (n=196) or the control group (n=189) for one school year (1998-1999). Several hundred tutors worked in the schools each week. The research focused on academic outcomes as measured by academic grades and standardized test scores and as well as on confidence in academic ability, motivation and school attendance.Interviews and conversations with teachers, students and tutors indicated that everyone believed that the program was having a positive impact on the participants. However, when they analysed the results using multivariate regression models, Ritter and Maynard could find no difference in any of the measured outcomes between the tutored group and the control group. Bluntly, the analysis revealed no significant relationship between WPTP participation and any of the academic outcome measures.In each case, ”improvements” were explained primarily by prior performance and, to a lesser extent, by demographic, school and grade variables. Even substantial differences in family background did not seem to alter performance trajectories: “the students were following their expected academic path, and the WPTP intervention was not strong enough to move them to a higher performance path. Participation in WPTP tutoring does not result in systematic program impacts over this one-year observation period,” Ritter and Maynard concluded.