Reading & Literacy

Study Supports ‘Success for All’ Reading Method

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — April 11, 2006 3 min read
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A reading program that its developer contends has been shunned by some federal and state officials has again been proved to help poor and minority children learn to read—this time with the kind of research methodology used in medical studies.

The third and final report from a federally financed study of Success for All, released last week, concludes that students in schools using that model improved their reading skills significantly more than similar groups of students taught with other methods.

The study, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm, looked at 35 low-income schools in Chicago, Greensboro, N.C., and Indianapolis. The schools were randomly selected to implement Success for All or continue with their existing reading programs.

“Final Reading Outcomes of the National Randomized Field Trial of Success for All” is posted by the Success for All Foundation. (Microsoft Word required.)

“After three years of implementation, the evidence suggests that Success for All schools are capable of producing broad effects across the literacy domain for both children who are exposed to the model over each of the first three years of their academic careers and for all children enrolled in the schools, regardless of the number of years of exposure to the reform,” the report says.

‘Real-World Circumstances’

Geoffrey D. Borman, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, conducted the three-year study. Unlike previous studies of the program, which were primarily conducted by its developers in schools that adhered closely to implementation guidelines, Mr. Borman’s analysis reflects how the program works in general practice.

The previous studies were “very much shepherded over by program developers [at sites] that were demonstrations of what the program could do at its best,” Mr. Borman said. “This study looked at the effect of SFA when it is widely disseminated and implemented … in more real-world circumstances.”

Students in the Success for All program showed a half-year gain in their reading skills over the control group and scored in the 64th percentile on a standardized test, compared with the 50th percentile for the other students, Mr. Borman said.

The $7 million study has won praise from researchers and officials for its rigorous research design. The federal No Child Left Behind Act has promoted the use of such randomized studies in determining which instructional programs and interventions are effective. (“Long-Awaited Study Shows ‘Success for All’ Gains,” May 11, 2005)

Randomized field trials—used commonly in medicine but rarely in education—assign subjects randomly to experimental or comparison groups. Success for All, developed at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore by Robert E. Slavin, is one of the best-known and most-studied school improvement programs in the country. It has also been widely debated and criticized.

One of its critics has repeatedly questioned the credibility of the data on the program’s effectiveness, and he continues to be a skeptic.

Conclusions Questioned

“The study is scientifically invalid and biased in favor of Success for All,” contended Stanley Pogrow, a research professor of educational leadership at San Francisco State University. He has accused previous studies of selectively using data to paint a positive picture of the program’s achievement results.

“This has been going on for 14 years under a variety of guises,” he said last week, “and the program isn’t working in the real world.”

But Mr. Slavin said that Mr. Borman’s study is further validation that the program works.

“It’s one more piece of evidence, and a particularly important one in the current context,” in which federal officials are encouraging more randomized studies, he said.

“This is about the 51st experimental-control comparison [on Success for All],” he said, “and the biggest to say that SFA schools improve student reading achievement more than similar comparison schools.”

Mr. Slavin has filed formal complaints with federal investigators in the past year over what he asserts has been a campaign in the Education Department to shut his program out of the $1 billion-a-year Reading First initiative.

The department’s inspector general and the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, are both investigating claims that consultants to the federal reading program favored some commercial programs over others in the grant-making process. Their reports are expected later this year. (“Complaint Filed Against Reading Initiative,” June 22, 2005)

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A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Study Supports ‘Success for All’ Reading Method


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