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.

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