Student Achievement Obituary

Remembering Renowned Education Researcher Bob Slavin

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — April 29, 2021 7 min read
Robert Slavin
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Bob Slavin’s sudden death from a heart attack at the age of 70 last week sent a shock through the K-12 world. The renowned education researcher at Johns Hopkins University and co-founder of the Success for All Foundation with his wife, Nancy Madden, was still a formidable force in pushing for policies to support the nation’s students and ensure those most likely to struggle with learning had access to effective instruction and school services.

It’s clear Slavin had much more to say—and more work he wanted to pursue—to further that cause.

His latest campaign, which Slavin outlined in a letter to President-elect Joe Biden a few days after the election, called for a “Marshall Plan” for tutoring. Slavin was anticipating the likelihood of millions of children in high-poverty schools falling further behind their peers as a result of the pandemic. He saw a massive mobilization of tutors and resources to bolster classroom learning as an effective strategy for tackling the problem.

“Returning schools to the way they were when they closed last spring will not heal the damage students have sustained to their educational progress,” he wrote in the letter. “This damage will be greatest to disadvantaged students in high-poverty schools, most of whom were unable to take advantage of the remote learning most schools provided. Some of these students were struggling even before schools closed, but when they reopen, millions of students will be far behind.”

Said Madden, his wife and the CEO of Success for All: “Bob was definitely not slowing down; I think he was speeding up his work. It was that important to him.”

Having spent more than three decades working with educators and students in high-need schools and districts across the country, Slavin had keen insight into the challenges of raising student achievement and getting kids on the path to success from the start.

As an early advocate of comprehensive school reform, Slavin was a persistent and insistent voice for following the evidence on effective learning approaches and programs, and then putting those strategies into practice. Slavin himself began building a coalition of service providers to mobilize the army of tutors he envisioned, and ProvenTutoring.org launched with his prewritten announcement as planned, two days after he died. The site recommends effective models for addressing the learning loss caused or exacerbated by the school disruption of the past year.

The initiative is the latest in a long list of Slavin’s offensives against the unproven programs and ineffective instruction that, in his view, put many learners at risk of falling behind. Throughout his career he was known for his relentless pursuit of “success for all” by using “what works” in education, as his mantra went.

Cheryl Sattler, a long-time colleague, recently recalled her many conversations with Slavin about his grand plans for school improvement, and the ensuing debates over the seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieving them.

“Bob would inevitably say, ‘Why not? Yeah it will be hard, but surely we can get it done.’”

Always a follower of the evidence

As Slavin saw it, nothing was impossible, and the consequences of not taking a bold path, one that followed the evidence, were too high. Too many learners would otherwise be left behind.

This determination was evident throughout his work and in hundreds of blog posts, first as a contributor through his Sputnik blog on edweek.org, then on his own website. His posts are filled with sound reasoning, practical insights, and, of course, evidence.

The first time I met Slavin, he had invited me to lunch in Washington. He wanted to explain how the federal Reading First program, launched under the George W. Bush administration, was discouraging the use of some evidence-based reading programs, including his own Success for All, even though they met all the criteria outlined in the law, and in some ways surpassed those requirements.

As a longtime reporter on the curriculum beat, I had heard this before. Everyone thought their product, their program, their research was better than the rest. I was skeptical of such claims.

But Bob Slavin was not a salesman; he was a scholar and a researcher. Over lunch, he and his colleague spoke persuasively, and in great detail, displaying their knowledge of the law guiding Reading First, part of the No Child Left Behind legislation.

It had been modeled in part on previous initiatives that Slavin had helped to shape that called for evidence of effectiveness for federally funded programs. Slavin made a strong argument, built on his expert knowledge of literacy research and federal programs, but there was a lot that would need to be verified and put in context. By itself, that conversation might have given Slavin’s critics more fodder that his campaign against the Reading First program was simply sour grapes.

But Bob, being Bob, would never make a case just on the basis of opinion or hurt feelings. He came with evidence. He had already collected a briefcase full of official documents through public records requests, and had suggestions for other Freedom of Information Act requests that would yield valuable intel into the closed door conversations that determined which states—and which programs—would gain approval. Success for All was not among them.

Slavin was adamant that the Education Department and its consultants were denying thousands of schools and untold numbers of children access to proven programs that fit perfectly into the rigorous requirements of the Reading First program. In fact, Success for All may have been the solution with the most evidence of effectiveness at the time, having a full portfolio of gold-standard research to back it up.

It was unconscionable to Slavin that it would be discouraged as an option under Reading First.

That lunch meeting launched me on an extensive, three-year reporting effort to dig into the management of the $6 billion Reading First initiative.

After an official complaint from Slavin, a series of scathing inspector general reports, a congressional hearing, intensive scrutiny from policymakers, researchers and educators, advocates of Reading First went on the defensive. Slavin’s critics saw his role as motivated by personal gain or a need to be in the spotlight. That criticism, mostly from competitors and the consultants who came under scrutiny in the inquiry, seemed disingenuous, and did not reflect the truth of Slavin’s long-standing pursuit of school improvement and, ultimately, student success. Reading First ultimately lost funding amid budget cuts.

An enduring impact on teachers and student learning

I eventually left my reporting job at EdWeek for a short stint in nonprofit communications. There, I encountered Slavin and Madden again as they sought a strategic communications plan for Success for All to assist in the scale up to hundreds more schools as part of its federal i3 grant. Working with Slavin directly gave me an inside view of his motivation. While I had been a dispassionate follower of his work over the years, I gained a deep respect and appreciation for his commitment to student success, teacher support, and pursuing approaches that had evidence that they worked. They pointed with pride to specific examples of schools, teachers, and students who were positively impacted by the use of the SFA model. Members of the SFA leadership team shared stories of their visits to schools, which inevitably led to Slavin participating in classroom cheers or an impromptu dance. He was not motivated by his own success, but that of the teachers and students he served.

According to a post on the Johns Hopkins blog announcing his April 24 death, Slavin wrote or co-authored more than 24 books and more than 300 peer-reviewed papers and book chapters. The topics he wrote about often followed his work in Success for All, a comprehensive school improvement model designed with literacy as the foundation for children’s learning success. Slavin took on complex topics such as federal policy implications and randomized research design.

But just as often, he’d advocate with equal passion—sometimes exasperation—that relatively simple solutions could spare children and their families unnecessary frustration with learning struggles. One was providing regular eye exams and glasses for students who needed them.

While Slavin was resolute in his work, he was well known for his warmth, sincerity, and humor. That humor came through frequently in his blog, including a post he published a few days before his death announcing the impending launch of his tutoring site:

“I can guarantee you that this website will completely change your perception of life, the universe, and everything, or at the very least about tutoring,” he wrote with a virtual wink. “After Monday, my blogs will return to normal. Perhaps even better than normal.”

Sadly, that promise will not be fulfilled under Slavin’s leadership, but his legacy is bound to reverberate as his work and his signature initiatives continue.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2021 edition of Education Week as In Memoriam: Bob Slavin, Education Researcher

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