To the Editor:
In his Commentary “Job One for Title I: Use What Works“ (March 30, 2011), Robert Slavin called for the Title I reauthorization to “ensure” that the funds be used for programs that have been proven to work, including his own program, Success for All. While on the surface this seems reasonable, he has made many such calls in the past which, when heeded, resulted in Success for All benefiting disproportionately and the reforms failing.
The fundamental problem is that Success for All does not work, and may actually inhibit the academic development of the most vulnerable students the reforms are intended to help. Clearly, there is a lot of published research showing Success for All to be effective. However, it includes research by Mr. Slavin, his current and former associates, and distributors of the program. Conversely, there is a large body of independent research that has not only consistently found Success for All to be ineffective, but dramatically so—for two decades.
Richard Venezky, an internationally respected researcher, reanalyzed the data from the late 1980s and early 1990s in Baltimore and found that students in the program entered the 6th grade reading approximately three years below grade level. In the Houston “miracle” powered by Success for All, The New York Times found that 10th grade students who had passed the state test for all six years scored at the fifth percentile on the Stanford Achievement Test. (This is not a misprint.) Jonathan Kozol debunked claims of the program’s success in New York City.
My own publications documented both the failure of Success for All and the inappropriate methodology used to determine the program’s effectiveness. My reviews encompassed all the national high-profile reform districts and experiments that were reporting success from using Success for All, involving hundreds of schools (e.g., Memphis, Tenn.; Miami-Dade County, Fla.; and, Cincinnati, Ohio). The program was then typically dropped amidst reports of poor results as soon as the next superintendent was hired. More recently, when I looked at the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores for the Atlanta public school system, which had mandated the use of Success for All in its high-poverty schools serving predominantly black student populations, I found the 4th grade white-black reading gap was the equivalent of four grade levels. (This is not a misprint.) The most recent independent study (2010) was conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, which examined the extent to which the four most effective programs, as selected by a panel of experts, increased the reading comprehension of 5th graders in high-poverty schools. While none of these “effective” programs did better than what schools were already doing, one “effective” program did significantly worse. Guess which one! Nine of the 18 schools randomly assigned to use the Success for All entry in the experiment dropped it after the first year, even though the experiment was supposed to continue into a second year.
Based on the presumed success of Success for All, Mr. Slavin’s call to limit the use of Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration, or CSRD, grants to programs proven to work convinced Congress to mandate that the funds could only be used for a small list of specified programs. There were no positive effects from CSRD, and hundreds of millions of dollars were wasted. New Jersey went even further when it made the historic commitment to spend hundreds of millions of extra state dollars each year to raise the funding level of its inner-city schools to those of its wealthiest. The state mandated that all the elementary schools receiving these funds had to use whole-school-reform packages, and Success for All became the presumptive program of choice—despite my warnings. Alas, the results were poor, and, in recent years, New Jersey has moved to cut back on this mandate
Despite this backdrop of failure, Mr. Slavin is now advocating that the largest federal program in precollegiate education, Title I, “ensure” that its funds are used on programs “proven to work” by the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation, or i3, program and the department’s What Works Clearinghouse. However, since i3 just awarded Success for All a scaling-up grant of $49 million, and the clearinghouse validated it to be effective, there is clearly a disconnect between how these panels view evidence of effectiveness and what happens in the real world.
As a result, Mr. Slavin’s newest call for Title I program mandates should be rejected. Congress and states should not mandate, or even recommend, specific programs or practices for which Title I funds should be used. In addition, school superintendents should stop mandating the use of Success for All in their high-poverty schools. After two decades of failure, such action is long overdue.
Research Professor of Educational Leadership
San Francisco State University
San Francisco, Calif.
The writer is also an emeritus professor of education at the University of Arizona.
Editor’s note: An abbreviated version of this letter appears in the Letters to the Editor section in the May 11, 2011 print edition of Education Week.