Mentorship Programs at Cal

Graphic Designed by: Jenny Chen

BRB Bottomline: The influence of early childhood education have a much greater impact on individuals than most people realize. The current cuts in elementary school budgets have lowered the quality of education for these vital years in a child’s life; however, mentorship programs may be able to help. Low cost and effective, one-on-one mentorship help with the primary problems early education is currently facing: large class sizes and the lack of individualized attention for each student.

The Importance of Early Childhood Education

Although the fuzzy memories of preschool and kindergarten may merely be a chaotic jumble of coloring outside-the-lines and eating Play-Doh, early childhood education has a much greater impact on individuals than most people realize. Our fellow BRB contributor from the Economics column, Varun Jadia, recently wrote an article, “Wealth, Poverty, and Kindergarten: The Impact of Early Childhood Education,” in which he highlights the significant positive correlation between smaller classroom sizes and more-experienced teachers in early education with higher test scores and/or higher lifetime earnings. Unfortunately, reducing classroom sizes and training teachers, in addition to providing more personnel and resources, require funding that the U.S. education system currently lacks.

Source: Skill Formation and the Economics of Investing in Disadvantaged Children

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, the U.S. is in the bottom five amongst all developed countries in terms of amount spent per child on early childhood education. A Nobel Prize winning American economist, James J. Heckman, published a  study on the effects of individuals’ childhood environment on salaries, high school graduation rates, and home ownership. He found that current educational funding priorities are askew, grossly underestimating long-tail of investing in early educations; “at current levels of funding, we overinvest in most schooling and post-schooling programs and underinvest in preschool programs.”

The Importance of Early Childhood Education

Although the fuzzy memories of preschool and kindergarten may merely be a chaotic jumble of coloring outside-the-lines and eating Play-Doh, early childhood education has a much greater impact on individuals than most people realize. Our fellow BRB contributor from the Economics column, Varun Jadia, recently wrote an article, “Wealth, Poverty, and Kindergarten: The Impact of Early Childhood Education,” in which he highlights the significant positive correlation between smaller classroom sizes and more-experienced teachers in early education with higher test scores and/or higher lifetime earnings. Unfortunately, reducing classroom sizes and training teachers, in addition to providing more personnel and resources, require funding that the U.S. education system currently lacks.

Source: Skill Formation and the Economics of Investing in Disadvantaged Children

Lack of Funding for Oakland Education

With tuition at private schools rising and state funding for public schools dropping, lower-income parents are left with no choice but to accept the current suboptimal education offered to their children, a reality that hits quite close to home.

In Oakland, where more than 30% of children live in households with incomes below the federal poverty level, finding high-quality, early childhood education for most children is extremely difficult. Slashes to the California state education budget have left Oakland with low wages and heavy workloads for teachers, plans to shut down more and more schools, and large class sizes. In an op-ed published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Keith Brown, president of the Oakland Education Association, expressed his concern for the lack of funding as it results in more than 500 qualified teachers leaving early education annually. “A stable workforce of educators earning a living wage…are a thing of the past,” Brown notes, “No wonder teachers don’t stay in Oakland.”

Lack of Funding for Oakland Education

As a result, Oakland teachers left the classroom on Feb. 12 as part of a week-long strike in protest against low wages. At the end of the strike, although the deal they agreed upon nearly doubled teachers’ original pay raises, those increases still only amount to an 11% increase in wages over four years. That’s just 2.6% a year, compounded annually, which is below the 2.7% San Francisco inflation rate compounded annually over the past decade. While the school district promised to hire more supplementary workers, including school counselors and special education teachers, it only committed to decreasing class sizes by a “modest shrink by one or two students”. Despite the progress this strike has made with educational funding, Oakland teachers and children continue to face a funding problem, with the overlooked correlation between a lack of high-quality early education and lifetime success proxies negatively affecting society in general.

Batya Elbaum, the associate professor of Education and Psychology at the University of Miami, suggested a possible solution to early education funding that solves both quality and cost of high-quality education. In his research, elementary students having trouble with reading performed significantly better after receiving one-on-one tutoring. They found that, in comparison to peers that did not undergo this individualized tutoring under the instruction of certified teachers, mentee students “performed at a level 2/5 of a standard deviation higher,” a benefit that may “be great enough to allow these students to keep up with classroom instruction and to avoid academic failure.” The analysis also noted that “college students and trained reliable community volunteers were able to provide significant help…reduc[ing] the cost of providing effective, supplemental, one-to-one instruction.” Effective supplemental instruction minimizes the cost of inefficiency education, which, in addition to creating programs for volunteer mentors, may increase the quality of early education for  low-income families without them needing to empty their pockets.

Although changing policies and increasing funds for the U.S. Education Budget directly is necessary for real change, local mentorship, tuition organizations, and nonprofits may be able to offer individualized attention and emotional support that can ameliorate the problem of neglect large classrooms cause kindergarten and pre-schoolers to face.

College Mentorship Programs and their Impact

​Within the Bay Area alone, various nonprofits are working toward improving early childhood education. Raising a Reader, based in Silicon Valley, encourages parents and young children to read together to improve parent involvement in their child’s education. Another example is Partners in School Innovation, which seeks to establish a more solid curriculum and improve teacher quality in low-performing schools. Similar initiatives can also be seen on our campus.

The Sage Mentorship Project, a UC Berkeley mentorship program established in 2007, presents young students in local schools with the opportunity of individual mentoring lessons with enthusiastic college student volunteers. SAGE aims to create a consistent source of enrichment and mentorship for children, many of which do not have access to high-quality early childhood education. The after-school programs and activities they have established could act as a supplement to extend and enhance early childhood education for the students they work with. These volunteer mentors have noticed the influence of funding in local schools firsthand as well as their own influence on students.

Caroline Kim, current Director of New Highland Academy in Oakland, noticed the disparity between the teaching styles at a better-funded school and a financially struggling school, “just a 10-minute walk apart,” during her four semesters of working with Sage. The teachers at the better-funded school had “more room to play with the curriculum.” One of the teachers followed a more interactive Japanese mathematics curriculum, where “kids teach the other kids,” while the other school followed traditional lecture-style lesson plans with modules and worksheets. Kim noted that she did not know which style was more effective, but “the fact that the teachers [at the school with more funding] had more freedom was very cool.”

Kim also noticed the impact of the large classes at New Highland Academy. “The classes themselves are pretty big,” and the teachers are “spread out pretty thin” she said. “[This] puts a lot of strain on the teacher to kind of give this really incredible group of kids, who maybe struggle a bit, the attention that they all need. We help alleviate that and help them feel like they are being heard.”

Sage is unique as its volunteer mentors strive to not only help young students grow academically but also emotionally by developing a personal relationship with them. Sean O’Neil, Sage’s Rosa Parks Elementary School Director, believes in the importance of the long-term emotional support that they can provide in students as it impacts their long-term development. “I was matched with a kindergartner and now he’s a third grader. We’ve developed a trust and kind of a friendship now,” he said. “I’ve been able to see him grow up and improve.” Many mentors have noticed that these personal relationships have resulted in tangible changes in the kids. Internal Vice President, Veronica Nguyen noticed that the more time her mentee spent with her and the more “comfortable” she became, her mentee not only improved academically, but also “became a lot more eager during lessons to ask questions and reach out for help.”

Although one-on-one mentorship cannot fix everything wrong with our current education system, Sage, and programs like it, could be a step in the right direction, providing not only the problems within our education system with possible improvements, but also Cal students with an opportunity to give back to our community. This program is also not solely beneficial for the mentees. Upon speaking with members of Sage, many shared that working with the students was a positive, rewarding experience for the mentors as well. Stephanie, a member of the executive board of SAGE said, “Every time we go, they [the students] always give you the most energetic and positive welcome.”

Take Home Points

Having analyzed the value of high-quality early childhood education and the lack thereof in the U.S., what can we do to help? Through local nonprofits, mentoring programs, and organizations on campus, it is possible for all students at Cal to positively impact the quality of early childhood education in our community. One-on-one mentoring can be a viable solution that improves efficiency and lowers costs by minimizing spending on inefficient education. Moreover, policymakers should focus significantly-more on the correlation between early education and lifetime achievement because a society of high-achieving people from all socioeconomic backgrounds produces economic progress and class mobility.

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