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Will Success Spoil Success for All?

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The demand from district, state, and federal governments for ''proven'' reform models is a central factor in Success for All's spread.

A year ago, another of Orange County's high-poverty schools, Pineloch Elementary School, adopted Success for All with some promising results. Reading scores shot up on tests given by the district, and discipline improved. Between August 1996 and June 1997, for example, the percent of 3rd graders reading at or above grade level jumped from 4 percent to 44 percent.

So, this school year, Pine Hills and 11 other Orlando-area Title I elementary schools signed on with Success for All, at the strong urging of district officials.

The demand from district, state, and federal governments for ''proven'' reform models is a central factor in Success for All's spread. Since they launched the program 12 years ago, Slavin and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore have devoted themselves to measuring how well it works. The researchers have, in a series of longitudinal evaluations, compared Success for All schools with nonprogram schools where the students have similar family incomes and prior levels of achievement.

The results--which encompass 23 Success for All schools in eight states--have found that the program's students learned substantially more than the control students, although the results were not statistically significant on every measure at every grade level tested. Moreover, the improvements were biggest for students in the bottom fourth of their classes.

At the end of 1st grade, for example, Success for All students on average were reading at a level about three months ahead of nonprogram students. And by the end of 5th grade, they were reading about a year ahead of the control group. Studies also have found that the program's focus on aggressive, early intervention for faltering students reduces the need for special education referrals and placements.

The spread of the program also owes much to Slavin himself, who, despite his rumpled jackets and low-key manner, is a consummate salesman.

"Bob has been tireless at researching and writing about and promoting the program," says Richard L. Allington, a professor of reading at the State University of New York at Albany. "At the same time, unlike some folks, he also has been pretty open, candid, and honest about the fact that there are other programs out there that also work."

Though Slavin's wife, Nancy A. Madden, is equally responsible for designing and administering the burgeoning enterprise, he is its primary spokesman and advocate.

"Nancy shuns the limelight," he says. "She does not like the politics and the press and that kind of stuff. I sometimes jokingly describe myself as Nancy's public relations agent."

Once the split between the program and the university is complete, the foundation will be led by Madden as chief executive officer and Slavin as board chairman. Slavin says he will maintain his position at the university, where he is co-director of the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk.

As it spreads to more and more elementary schools, Success for All is also pushing in new directions. In 1992, the Johns Hopkins team began testing Roots and Wings, an expansion of the original program that includes math, social studies, and science curricula. And Johns Hopkins researchers are now testing a version of the program in middle schools.

Before making their decision, Pine Hill teachers visited other Success for All schools. And they also voted in a secret ballot to adopt the program, meeting the program's requirement that at least 80 percent of teachers approve the idea to ensure that their participation is voluntary.

Now, they are under the microscope, with heavy pressure to show improvement. On an overcast January day, as raindrops beat steadily on the roofs of the portables, three Success for All trainers visit the school for an "implementation check," to see how well things are going.

This is the second of three such visits they'll make at Pine Hills during the program's first year--a vital element of Slavin's efforts to maintain program quality.

Each Success for All school begins the day with a highly structured, 90-minute reading period during which children gather in groups according to reading ability, rather than age.

Each Success for All school begins the day with a highly structured, 90-minute reading period during which children gather in groups according to reading ability, rather than age. Every certified teacher--from the gym coach to the librarian--is assigned a reading class, to keep class sizes small. The pace of the lessons is so rapid that many teachers have a timer perched on their desks to stay on schedule.

As the period begins, trainer Patrice J. Case-McFadin and her two colleagues fan out into classrooms, checklists in hand: Are the teachers asking students to make predictions? Are they moving through the lesson on time? Are they using cooperative-learning techniques to actively involve students?

In one class, where the children are gathered around the floor in a circle, teacher Lurline Martin asks a question and then encourages students to "think, pair, share"--a strategy in which children think about an answer, discuss it with a partner, then share it with the group. Case-McFadin nods her head in delight. During her last visit in October, she specifically asked teachers to use this technique more often.

In another classroom, first-year teacher Sheryl Smout models "partner reading," in which two children sit side by side and monitor each other's oral reading and comprehension. "OK, now ask your partner, 'Do you understand what you read? Can you explain it in your own words?'" she prompts.

As she moves through the classrooms, Case-McFadin asks older students what day they are on, since each day of the Success for All week has a different, but predictable, lesson plan. She checks to make sure that materials are displayed where teachers and students can use them. And she writes comments about each teacher's strengths and weaknesses.

Smout was initially troubled by the program's prescriptiveness. "I think it's great," she says now. "I've seen incredible improvements in my children and in their confidence."

Of the school's 63 teachers, nearly half of them, like Smout, are new this year. Principal Faye Dunn says the program has been particularly beneficial for these young teachers, helping them "be structured and really do the right kinds of things that at-risk children need."

At day's end, the trainers will meet with the teachers to review what they've seen and to offer concrete suggestions for improvement.

Back in the Success for All portable, which is crammed with shelves of materials and teachers' manuals, Case-McFadin reviews assessment results with Pine Hills' two on-site facilitators, Kathi Wynn and Sandy Oller. The program requires every school to have at least one facilitator to oversee implementation on a day-to-day basis.

Each student is assessed on an eight-week cycle to determine whether he or she will stay in the same reading group or move up. The assessments also determine which students need daily 20-minute tutoring sessions.

"This program is so specific, it doesn't really leave room for going off on a tangent," says Wynn, a former kindergarten teacher. The implementation checks, she adds, force teachers to concentrate on the primary goals. "It's like Weight Watchers," she says. "If you know you're going to the meeting, you lose the weight."

Most of the trainers, like Case-McFadin, are former Success for All teachers who have been recruited out of the classroom.

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