Will Success Spoil Success for All?

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With their program touted as one of the most effective models for school reform, the challenge for Success for All's creators is to keep it that way.

Orlando, Fla.

How does a program dedicated to the principle that every child can succeed avoid being buried under the avalanche of its own success? That's the challenge facing Robert E. Slavin and Success for All, the elementary school reform model he launched in 1986. The program, built around the principle that every student should be a skilled reader by the end of 3rd grade, has become the darling of district superintendents and statehouse policymakers desperate to find school design models that can show results.

With more than 750 schools up and running nationwide, Slavin expects to add another 400 next year, and Success for All's revenues should double from $15 million this school year to about $30 million.

Good news, to be sure. But Slavin, a Johns Hopkins University researcher, is well aware that success comes at a price. Suddenly, the 47-year-old researcher finds himself enmeshed in business plans, jetting around the country to make presentations and speeches, and trying to raise two adolescents and a 9-year-old.

And Slavin himself is the first to acknowledge that it won't be easy to maintain quality as more and more schools embrace the program, with varying degrees of commitment.

There's no single reason for Success for All's sudden popularity. In many ways, it seems to be the right program in the right place at the right time.

It emphasizes the fundamental importance of reading, writing, and communication skills at a time when President Clinton and many states have called for schools and communities to make sure that all children read well by age 9.

It has a track record of working in low-performing schools in areas of high poverty--the very schools many states have begun targeting with new accountability schemes designed to force them to shape up.

Success for All is specific and detailed about what teachers should do in their classrooms on a daily basis. In this, it differs from less rigid models that seek to give teachers freedom by allowing them to develop their own materials--an approach that some critics charge asks too much of educators who already carry a heavy workload.

Partly because of its prescriptive approach, Success for All has won the endorsement of the American Federation of Teachers, which has launched a campaign to encourage schools to adopt concrete, research-based strategies.

Finally, Success for All's reading approach balances phonics with reading for meaning at a time when other methods of teaching reading, notably the whole-language approach, have fallen out of favor in many places.

"We have been politically incorrect in what has turned out to be the right way for now," Slavin says with dry humor.

The signs of success are everywhere.

The massive New York City district is installing Success for All in about a dozen of its most troubled elementary schools. Ditto for Miami-Dade County, where 36 schools identified by the state as critically low-achieving have been ordered to use the program.

School officials in Houston; Memphis; Orange County, Fla.; Phoenix; Portsmouth, Va.; and San Antonio, to name a few, have also adopted the program in a large number of their elementary schools.

And last month, a New Jersey judge involved in the state's long-running school finance lawsuit suggested that 319 elementary schools in 28 of the state's poorest districts adopt Success for All, or some other proven whole-school design.

"I would always worry about anything that is expanding as rapidly as this is expanding."

Anthony S. Bryk,
University of Chicago

Recently, Slavin has begun negotiations with Johns Hopkins to spin off the business end of Success for All into a separate, nonprofit foundation.

Despite its popularity, the program has its critics.

They charge that evaluations of the program are flawed, that it invests too heavily in materials and not enough in teacher expertise.

Others fear the program is growing too fast, and note that it does not work in all schools--a charge that Slavin has never contested.

"I would always worry about anything that is expanding as rapidly as this is expanding," says Anthony S. Bryk, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Chicago. "The concern is that quality melts when you're forced to expand as rapidly as they are."

Most Success for All schools pay for their participation, which costs about $70,000 the first year and $25,000 in subsequent years, with money from the federal Title I program. The costs cover training, materials, attendance at national conferences, and travel to the school for Success for All trainers.

Participating schools receive more than 60 boxes of curriculum materials and teaching manuals, up to 23 days of professional development and follow-up activities for teachers, and a very explicit design that changes the way the entire school is organized and operated.

"We kind of do a heart-lung transplant," Slavin explains. "One of the things we learned is that if you don't deal with both instruction and curriculum and school organization, things start to slide back. In a Success for All school, there's nothing to slide back to--it's gone."

The design changes how children are grouped, taught, and assessed for reading and language arts. It provides a language-rich preschool and kindergarten curriculum built around different themes.

Success for All schools hold daily one-to-one tutoring sessions for students who are struggling to read. Schools must also establish a family-support team of counselors, teachers, and administrators to improve attendance and behavior, help families receive social services, and increase parent involvement.

This emphasis on changing the design of the entire school is also in line with the times, as policymakers have become disillusioned with the spotty success of separate, stand-alone programs. Congress has expanded the number of low-income schools that are eligible to use Title I money to adopt whole-school designs. And in the current fiscal year, it has set aside $150 million specifically to encourage the implementation of proven, research-based models at Title I schools.

A stone's throw from the glitzy theme parks of Universal Studios and Walt Disney World, Pine Hills Elementary School is bursting at the seams. The pre-K-5 school opened in 1955 with 24 classrooms. Since then, it has added 37 portables to help house its nearly 1,000 students.

Like most Success for All schools, Pine Hills students come from predominantly low-income families. About 70 percent are black, 17 percent white, and 13 percent Hispanic. Eighty-six percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

Although the school was not identified by the state as one of its critically low-performing sites, educators here knew they came pretty close to making the list.

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.

"We truly put enormous efforts into making sure that if somebody calls themselves a Success for All school, they are, certainly at the outset."

Robert E. Slavin,
Success for All

One of the primary limitations on Success for All's growth is the need to recruit and prepare enough trainers to keep pace. Three years ago, about 80 percent of the trainers were based in Baltimore. Today, most work out of their homes to be closer to participating schools around the country.

In addition, Success for All has contracted with three regional training centers that work with schools in their areas. These are the University of Memphis in Tennessee; WestEd, a federally funded education laboratory based in San Francisco; and Educational Partners, a for-profit consulting company also located in San Francisco.

"We truly put enormous efforts into making sure that if somebody calls themselves a Success for All school, they are, certainly at the outset," Slavin says. "We are sweating the details to a great degree. And, eventually, we will walk away from schools that are not implementing the key elements of the program."

But despite such precautions, Slavin readily admits that the program doesn't always work--especially in schools that are pressured to adopt it. Others, he adds, do not carry it out as planned.

An article in the December issue of Evaluation Review, written by three Maryland researchers who are not affiliated with Success for All, chronicles the difficulties of implementing the model in one school in Charleston, S.C., over a three-year period.

The school was required to participate in the program, rather than choosing it voluntarily. It did not implement the family-support component. And the regrouping of students based on assessments did not happen as often as the program calls for. In addition, interpersonal difficulties between the in-school facilitator and some of the teaching staff disrupted the implementation further. And when Hurricane Hugo struck Charleston in mid-September 1989, it threw all the district's schools into turmoil.

After three years, the researchers found, kindergartners in the Success for All school generally outperformed those in a control school on reading assessments. But they found no positive effects in the later grades, where many students continued to read below district standards.

Teachers' expectations for their students also declined over the three-year period. "Although lack of positive findings in one or two schools should not lead to the conclusion that a program does not work," the researchers write, "it does call into question whether it will always, without fail, succeed."

Slavin agrees. "Success for All does not always work," he says. "It has to be implemented."

In Louisiana, some teachers say they were pressured into adopting the program without knowing much about it.

Mary Jane Hollingsworth, the president of the St. Mary Parish Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association, says all elementary schools in her 12,000 student district are using the program in grades K-3. "There were some schools that voted no for the program--that did not have the 80 percent approval," she says. "And they kept going back and having to revote and revote until finally just everyone gave in and said yes."

"I don't think that's exactly correct," says Glenda Comeaux, the supervisor of elementary education for the St. Mary Parish district. "I think that some of them reacted at first with reluctance because of a lack of information. And then once everything was explained to them, and they understood the program, they did opt to go to the program."

But Hollingsworth says some teachers still complain that they are under tremendous stress and must work late into the night preparing for class. While some teachers are seeing improvements, she adds, others remain skeptical.

Such stories could become more common as states and districts try to mandate Success for All's adoption. In New Jersey, for example, Slavin has insisted that the program will not work with more than 50 schools in the first year, and that those schools must agree to participate.

"Where you have schools that basically are under compulsion to make a choice," he says, "this is going to be much, much more difficult."

Some educators, such as Allington, who chairs the reading department at SUNY-Albany, say Success for All invests too heavily in materials at the expense of teaching.

"I'm a reading person, and I don't think that the program actually reflects some of the best practices in reading," Allington says. "I don't think that it invests heavily enough in developing teacher expertise in reading."

Other researchers have begun to question the methods used to evaluate the program. Most of the studies have relied on individually administered reading tests chosen by Slavin and his colleagues, rather than standardized tests used by the districts.

Slavin explains that the researchers chose the tests--which measure word-attack skills, reading comprehension, oral reading, and letter-word identification because group-administered, standardized tests are not valid measures for young children. In addition, he adds, the high-stakes tests used by districts are often subject to manipulation.

"They do research, and they try to think about how to get these things to work in schools, and there's evidence that it actually works."

Anthony S. Bryk

But whatever the virtues of such tests, argues Gary D. Gott-fredson, one of the co-authors of the South Carolina study, eventually Success for All schools will have to perform on districts' own measures of student achievement. And, so far, it is not clear what proportion of students in Success for All schools are actually reading at grade level according to those measures.

In addition, Gott-fredson and others contend, it is almost impossible to achieve a perfect match between a Success for All school and a control school, throwing the validity of such comparisons into question.

Slavin brushes off such criticisms. "There's a reason that, for 80 years, science has insisted on control groups," he says. "They're the best representation of what would have happened had you not implemented the program. Of course, there is a difficulty getting a perfect match between any pair of schools, but once you look at large numbers of comparisons that's just not likely."

Susan Bodilly, a senior social scientist at the RAND Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based research organization, says Slavin deserves credit for evaluating the program at all.

"So few education programs have been evaluated in any kind of fashion," she says. But, she adds, now that there are several hundred Success for All schools, "you can't get by much longer without a much more formal evaluation."

Her praise of the program is echoed by others in the research community.

"There are a lot of criticisms that one hears about it," the University of Chicago's Bryk says. "But in terms of the kind of organization it's developed ... it's much further along than any organization I know of. They do research, and they try to think about how to get these things to work in schools, and there's evidence that it actually works."

Success for All, he says, approaches school reform "as a kind of engineering problem."

Vol. 17, Issue 21, Page 42-45

Published in Print: February 4, 1998, as Will Success Spoil Success for All?
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