As a young child, I spent the hours before and after school with Mrs. Johnson, a retired teacher.
She helped me practice my letter sounds and hone my problem-solving skills through games that encouraged my love of reading and learning.
In eighth grade, when I found myself struggling in Algebra 1, Mr. Williams came to the rescue. A retired math teacher who lived a half mile up the road from my family, he opened his home to me every Wednesday afternoon for tutoring. Mr. Williams taught me not only how to solve equations and use variables but also the importance of asking for help instead of giving up.
Mr. Williams and Mrs. Johnson taught me more than reading and math — they taught me lessons that have shaped my life and that I carry daily. One of those lessons is the profound impact that older adults can have on the academic and life success of a child.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently visited schools and universities in an effort to “Rethink School.” The idea was to identify innovative programs and strategies that help students succeed and be ready for the career of their choice so those programs can be replicated across the country. But we haven’t seen a “Rethink School” blog post devoted to including older adults, a strategy proven to help kids succeed.
Education is the best way out of poverty, an essential part of realizing one’s goals. Too often, children’s Zip codes and family backgrounds dictate the quality of their education and the opportunities they can access. State and federal governments, educators, parents, entrepreneurs and billionaires are all seeking solutions to this problem.
What if one vital component of that solution is right in front of us, capable, ready and willing, but untapped: older adults. Every day in the United States, 10,000 people turn 65 years of age, yet they are rarely thought of as a resource that could be mobilized to better educate and support our nation’s children.
Older adults are not only capable of working with children, they are effective. Pre- and post-tests of young children (ages 3-5) in Jumpstart, which trains adults to support pre-schoolers in preparing for kindergarten across the country, show positive growth in the development of language, literacy and social-emotional skills, which are early predictors of academic success and, by extension, life success.
Our older adult volunteers work on teams and are partnered with small groups of children for an academic year. They read high-quality books and engage in learning activities, working in partnership with teachers. We have seen the positive impact that older adults can make, and we are investing in finding new ways to engage them more.
AARP’s Experience Corps, which engages older adults in tutoring elementary-aged children in high-need elementary schools, shows similar results for older children. Children partnered with Experience Corps volunteers “achieved as much as a 60 percent improvement in critical literacy skills compared to their peers,” according to studies conducted by Washington University of St. Louis/Mathematica Policy Research Center. Some volunteers tutor children one-on-one or in small groups, while others volunteer as literacy assistants who support teachers with classroom-wide activities.
These are just two programs.
You might be wondering whether older adults really want to be bothered with loud and high-energy kids. But survey after survey by large nonprofits such as AARP and federal agencies such as the Corporation for National and Community Service say they do. As Baby Boomers move into retirement, more older adults are seeking opportunities like these. AARP found that not only are older adults interested in working with young children, but once committed, older adults are more likely to stay engaged over multiple years. Yes, they are capable, ready and willing to invest their time.
We need to “rethink school” to build the infrastructure that will make it possible for older adults to participate more in children’s education. Schools need more support in accessing such programs, and they need guidance in how to build programming of their own when none exists locally.
One big impediment is cost. Even though the older adults are volunteering their time, there’s a financial burden of must-have background checks, materials and training. Marketing and recruitment require funding as well. And there’s a need among those volunteers navigating low, fixed incomes for stipends and tax exemptions to be able to spend their time in schools instead of seeking other ways to earn income.
No one would disagree that as a country we need to make significant improvements in our education system. We need investments in teacher preparation and professional development. We need effective, culturally relevant and inclusive curricula. We also need school infrastructure to provide both safe and engaging spaces for learning.
These needs are real and urgent, and yes, they will require significant attention, substantial investment and bold commitments. We need to include America’s growing population of older adults. Older adults are part of the solution to these far-reaching and persistent challenges.
While we’re “rethinking school,” we shouldn’t squander this opportunity.