• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Thursday 17th May, 2012

The SMILE that says mentoring too often doesn’t work

Research at the University of Texas casts serious doubt on the value of giving indiscriminate support to school-based mentoring programs in the US, where government investment between 2003 and 2006 amounted to $150 million. Like much else in the world of family support, mentoring programs proliferate with the best of intentions: to help children succeed in school and to live happy, productive lives. But randomized controlled trials of the benefits, such as the one carried out by Michael J Karcher, who heads up the SMILE project (The Study of Mentoring in the Learning Environment), are still relatively uncommon.Karcher introduces his work with quotations from a 2002 TimeWarner/AOL survey called “Mentoring in America” which indicated that 57 million adults in the US said they would like to mentor if they only knew how to get started – more than enough for every student in the US.A later national poll conducted by MENTOR (2006) estimated that close to 870,000 adults were mentoring children in schools, not including the thousands of high school-aged volunteers.Karcher’s trial has found that children in poorly-run programs tend to reap only minor benefits, and that an all too common short-lived relationship with a mentor can make the situation the relationship was intended to remedy even worse. He argues that future investments should be made more carefully. He maintains that a better understanding of what types of mentoring programs work best and for which types of students could lead to wiser allocations of scarcer resources.He collected information from 516 students between the ages of ten and 18, attending 19 schools serving mostly low-income families in Texas. All of the students took part in special education enrichment activities but only half (chosen by lottery) were paired with adult mentors. This latter group met their mentors during school hours for about an hour a week from the beginning to the end of the school year. Karcher compared information gathered from students, parents, and school records from the two groups to assess the impact of mentoring on students’ emotional well being and grades.Being mentored appeared to have a limited positive impact on participants in general. Students’ self esteem was modestly enhanced, but there was no impact at all on grades. Elementary school boys and high school girls benefited more. Karcher believes that programs like the one he studied could be more effective if they did a better job recruiting and keeping mentors and ensuring that recruits receive the support they need to stay connected to their mentees. But more research is needed to validate his recommendations. Until then, the best investments might be in programs that focus on young boys and older girls.[See also High standards mean bigs can help littles]• Summary of “The Study of Mentoring in the Learning Environment (SMILE): A Randomized Evaluation of the Effectiveness of School-based Mentoring” by Michael J. Karcher in Prevention Science, Volume 9, Number 2, June, 2008, pp. 99-113.

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