President Clinton proposes to "mobilize an army of tutors" to improve reading among the nation's children. It's an expensive undertaking based on the presumption that we need a cadre of adults to teach children. One of the most effective and undeveloped resources to improve literacy, however, already exists in every classroom: the children themselves.
The power of peer influences is increasingly apparent. According to a study reported in The New York Times, for example, 1 in 5 students didn't try as hard as they could in school work. These students were afraid of what the others would think of them.
It's common knowledge that children are already "teaching" others, so why not help them increase their skills and effectiveness positively?
That can be done simply and at little cost in community service-learning projects. One of the ways classroom teachers can best use the good fortune of smaller classrooms is to train children to teach others. Fifth- and sixth-graders make splendid tutors in the lower grades. And I've seen fourth graders skillfully teach reading in preschool classes.
Here's what could happen if we used our imaginations:
Students from teacher-training colleges (in collaboration with AmeriCorps and Teacher Corps personnel) could teach community college and high school students how to tutor children from middle schools. To ensure quality, their education professors could visit the activities to pool their teaching skills with classroom teachers.
Thus, a vast corps of young teachers would be available to tutor children in the upper grades. Those children, in turn, could teach reading to preschoolers through the third grade. Imagine the boost this reservoir would give Head Start and day care programs. "To teach is to learn twice," runs an old saying. Everyone would be learning and benefiting.
Tutoring would not have to be restricted to reading but could be enlarged to include any subject matter the child needed help with or wanted to learn. Teachers, though, would have to learn to teach others to teach; their satisfaction would come vicariously by watching the growth and development of their "teachers."
Pie in the sky? Hardly. It's merely culling effective learning that's been going on everywhere and using it systematically to produce less haphazard and often destructive results. And it would increase self-esteem and discipline.
We need only look back to the one-room school to see how teachers relied on older children for assistance to tutor younger ones. In the 1870s, England mobilized 34,000 pupil-teachers. And it wasn't that far back, during the "year of education" in 1960, that President Castro closed Cuba's schools for six months. During that short time, 271,000 volunteer pupil-teachers all but eliminated illiteracy among adults.
While this educational revolution was going on near our shores, peer teaching here was augmented on a large scale, pioneered by professors Peggy and Ronald Lippitt at the University of Michigan. They carefully worked out effective ways for children to teach other children and prepared training materials for teachers. With peer teachers, children learned faster and retained information longer.
Peer teaching is going on in pockets all over the nation; some classrooms and school districts have embraced the procedure and made it part of the mainstream. Mr. Clinton's call is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to boost future investment in our nation's social capital.
*Dennie Briggs teaches University of California extension classes in peer teaching in the schools and community service-learning.