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Posted at 4:32 PM ET, 01/ 3/2011

Effective reading program shelved, then amazingly reborn

By Jay Mathews

I thought it fitting that my colleague Nick Anderson had his eye-opening piece on the Success For All reading program published in The Post on New Year's Day. The night before, we were all singing "Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind." That could be the theme song for Success For All.

As Anderson reveals, the cleverly organized and well-tested program, brainchild of legendary Johns Hopkins University research couple Robert E. Slavin and Nancy A. Madden, spent the Bush Administration in a wilderness inhabited by other wrongly discarded educational ideas. It did not disappear, but it did not get much attention or growth. Now it is back in the forefront of school improvement, beneficiary of a $50 million grant from the Obama administration. Its risen-from-the-dead story would be hard to believe if Anderson hadn't explained it so well in his story.

I know Madden and Slavin. A decade ago, I wrote a magazine piece about their unusual marriage and work, and what they had done to alter reading instruction throughout much of the country. [I would love to link to the piece, but I can't find it. . . .Wait, wait, two days later a wise reader found it for me. Here it is. ] They had come from well-to-do families -- Madden from Edina, Minn., and Slavin from Montgomery County, Md. They met as undergraduates at Reed College, a Portland, Ore., institution that encourages social activists. They fell in love and decided to dedicate their lives to finding the best ways to teach children, particularly kids whose own upbringings weren't as comfortable as theirs had been. (They later adopted three children from South America.)

They ended up at Johns Hopkins, where they encountered a political dynamo, Buzzy Hettleman, friend and adviser to Baltimore mayors and at one time Maryland secretary of human resources. Hettleman admired their research, asked them what they thought would be the best way to improve reading instruction in the Baltimore schools, and then surprised them with a big pile of money to carry out the plan they came up with. The researchers agreed to become reformers and created Success For All. It had two elements I thought made it particularly powerful in many schools.

You will hear from some people that the Slavin-Madden method is too scripted, too much of a straitjacket for creative teachers. But Success For All makes certain, in a way few other programs do, that the teachers who participate do so with their eyes open. The Success For All Foundation won't let a school participate unless 75 percent of the staff have voted for the program in a secret ballot. That feature first caught my attention because the faculty of an Alexandria school had voted not to take the program. While investigating why, I discovered what Madden and Slavin were up to.

The other key feature, which unlike the secret ballot has been borrowed by other programs, is to guarantee that children have the smallest possible reading classes by enlisting every competent staffer in the school, including coaches and music teachers, to run a class when it is Success For All time. Slavin and Madden insist that each group has kids at about the same level. As they improve, they move up to a group at a higher level based on tests given every eight weeks or so.

Over the past twenty years, the only reading programs I have seen that have consistently proved to be effective are Success For All and Direct Instruction, the work of two University of Oregon pioneers, Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley C. Becker, who have also been hurt by the educational practice of discarding programs that aren't considered cool any more.

In 2009, the Consortium for Policy Research in Education added another gold medal to Success For All's collection of research trophies by concluding, after a 13-year, $20 million study, that the Slavin-Madden approach on average moved students from the 40th to the 50th percentile in reading between kindergarten and the end of second grade.

It takes courage for the Obama administration, understandably interested in being seen as modern and advanced, to invest money in a program that was born during the Reagan administration. Will other good ideas be reborn? I wouldn't count on it. But even in this era of hot ideas that go from 2G to 3G to 4G in months, we should not rule it out.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | January 3, 2011; 4:32 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Buzzy Hettleman, Nancy Madden, Nick Anderson, Robert Slavin, Success For All, Success For All saved from oblivion, education programs that go out of fashion  
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Our school used the Success for All reading program for 5 years. In the fifth and final year our use of the program we earned the title “Washington State Reading School” and earned a visit from the governor and local media to salute our strong test gains. Despite the strong results the program was abandoned.

It was abandoned for two reasons. First, the district implemented a common reading curriculum and the rigors of training were seen as a barrier to district wide use. Second, in an effort to keep reading group sizes small and manageable para-educators, classroom teachers, and specialist teachers each taught reading to a group for a 90 minute block of the day. The school’s mantra was “every teacher a reading teacher.” However the use of non-certified teachers in instructing reading violated the federal “highly qualified” teacher standard as some teachers were not certified as reading teachers (although they received the same training through Success for All as certified teachers).

In just 10 years of teaching I’ve seen flash in the pan ideas emerge, die off, and reemerge. None of these ideas seem to reach their full potential; too many new teachers arrive, school leadership changes, funding dries up, ideology shifts. I've heard teacher say "This too will come to pass." I always dismissed it as jaded nonsense. It is harder to dismiss those comments now.

Posted by: CDuerr | January 3, 2011 6:02 PM | Report abuse

Jay, is this the article?;col1

Posted by: researcher2 | January 3, 2011 6:56 PM | Report abuse

I don't agree with you, but I'm writing this comment for another reason. :-)

Hey everyone,
Let's make 2011 a year that we are heard. Let's get a postcard campaign going. I plan to send a postcard for each of my children and husband with a phone call about a week later seeing if it was received. :-)
I plan to post this message in various places. Please join me and get as many people as you can to join.

Dear Mr. Gates,
Dr. Diane Ravitch has invited you to a public debate around public education. I look forward to hearing the two of you debate. Please contact Dr. Ravitch at: New York University, 82 Washington Square East, New York, New York 10003.

(Please send your postcards or call The Gate's Foundation at PO Box 23350, Seattle, WA 98102. The foundation's phone number is (206)709-3100.)

Posted by: tutucker | January 3, 2011 9:32 PM | Report abuse

I would love to see a program that strongly promotes reading at home. Parent book circles and the like would go a long way to boost reading levels across the board. I am always amazed at the number of my students who are not read to as young children. Campaigns which have a strong in-home component are sorely needed. Many parents simply do not know how vital bedtime stories are to intellectual development. If they did, I believe many more would routinely read to their children. For more of my thoughts on education and teacher, I invite your readers to visit my blog at

Posted by: dcproud1 | January 4, 2011 5:54 AM | Report abuse

This piece is completely opaque to me, Jay.

You write as though there are no economic factors involved in "reform" (like market capture by competing for-profit investors). Butter just wouldn't melt in your mouth.

But, you support the for-profit agenda, and are directly employed by a very unsavory player in the for-profit public education market-capture business.

Can you give any hints, then? Has New Schools Venture Fund invested in subcontractors who service this program, for instance, or in other scripted competitors? You have no credibility as an actual education reporter unless you will stand up and speak of the for-profit elephant in the room.

Posted by: mport84 | January 4, 2011 6:14 AM | Report abuse

For mport84. You are usually very clear, but you lost me with this comment. Success For All is a non-profit. I do work for a for-profit company, but I don't see how that is relevant here, since the piece is praising a non-profit run by people whom, I suspect, share yr views on for-profit education companies.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 4, 2011 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Just a comment about 75% of the teachers having to vote for the program in order for it to come to their school--I worked in an elementary school in Northern Virginia for a while. The principal wanted to bring a new literacy program to the school, and it also required some percentage of staff to request it. The way it worked was that we were to sign on to a petition if we wanted it. Each day the petition was available, an announcement was made as the students were leaving to remind staff to come sign the petition. On the last day the petition was available, not nearly enough teachers had signed on, so the principal had a few staff members call down to or go to individual teachers/assistants to "remind" them to sign. I expressed reluctance to sign, as the program didn't affect my work, and I felt the signatures should come from staff who would be impacted. The reply was that I didn't have to sign, but they preferred that I do, because they needed my signature to get the program.

This was also the school where, when the principal was evaluated and all the instructional staff were to complete a questionnaire about her performance, the two assistant principals walked around the room, observing people's responses to the questions.

Posted by: janedoe5 | January 4, 2011 12:47 PM | Report abuse

I thought that Anderson's choice of the Grasonville Elementary School was a curious one. Only thirty percent of the students are low income. Approximately twenty-five percent of the students are minorities. The only minority group whose MSA(Maryland State Assessment) scores are posted on line are African Americans. They make up about fifteen percent of the school population. What struck me was the gap between the number of white students who are proficient or advanced compared to the number of African Americans in each of the grades tested. In fifth grade, 100% of white students were proficient or advanced vs 73% of African Americans in reading. If this is the case in schools without high levels of low income students, what are the results in schools that are almost entirely low income and African American?

Posted by: Susan50 | January 4, 2011 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Very interesting story from janedoe5. As she says, a petition is prone to abuse. That is why i thought the SFA secret ballot was much better.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 4, 2011 5:52 PM | Report abuse

My thanks to researcher2, living up to the signon, for digging out that piece I did for School Administrator mag mentioning Slavin and Madden. It is not the more detailed piece I did for the Washington Post magazine, but it is nice to know I wrote it. I had entirely forgotten. That happens a lot these days. Google does its best to preserve my memories but even it cannot keep up with the cellular disintegration.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 4, 2011 5:59 PM | Report abuse

Jay, what part of...

"The Success for All TurnAround and Transformational programs ars built on SFAF’s highly effective comprehensive programs – proven in more than fifty rigorous research studies. Our turnaround/transformational blueprint, which corresponds to the U.S. Department of Education’s rigorous standards for School Improvement and Race to the Top grants includes the following features:

data systems that track growth and provide data necessary for teacher and principal participation in a continuous-improvement coaching model for capacity building;

research-based and research-proven instructional programs vertically aligned from one grade to the next; and

a comprehensive community and parental-involvement plan geared toward partnerships and wrap-around services."

...don't you understand?

No, this is no longer a mom-and-pop non-profit crusade for improved reading instruction run by a dedicated couple, if it ever was. It is a front for for-profit corporate poverty pimps like the Washington Post Corporation. The "Turnaround Partner" feeding frenzy has unleashed hordes of ventures like them, to suck resources out of crippled urban schools under their false "non-profit" colors.

Your employer SELLS the junk you're pushing, and if you don't know it, you should.

Posted by: mport84 | January 4, 2011 7:25 PM | Report abuse

Whenever I see the words "transformational" or "turnaround", all sorts of alarm bells go off.

Why don't you ever write any columns on your involvement with George Soros' Center for American Progress, Jay?

Posted by: lisamc31 | January 4, 2011 9:03 PM | Report abuse

------- -------- -----------

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Best regards for you all,

Looking forward to your visiting.

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Posted by: strade65 | January 4, 2011 9:24 PM | Report abuse

So much need for "turnarounds", and so many claims made for this or that program, including reading readiness in Pre-K for 4 year olds. Meanwhile,in Finland,children don't begin to learn to read until age 7. However do they manage to not panic that their 5 and 6 years olds might never catch up?

Posted by: incredulous | January 5, 2011 3:48 AM | Report abuse

One of my co-workers in a bookstore was also an elementary teacher's aide. Once, after I had spent a lot of time recommending books to a parent, only to be told her son had already read that title, this aide commented, "I really hate kids who read a lot. They always think they're smart." A few days later, she misinterpreted a notice posted for employees, and we realized that she herself could not read well enough to understand simple signs. (There was nothing confusing about this sign--a straightforward directive.)

Would a teacher's aide be considered a "competent staffer" and expected to manage a reading class? And would dcproud expect her to read to her children?

Remember, we send kids to school to learn things their parents may not know. Before we expect people to teach students to read or to read to children, we should find out if they, themselves, can read.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | January 5, 2011 8:26 AM | Report abuse

insist that each group has kids at about the same level. As they improve, they move up to a group at a higher level based on tests given every eight weeks or so.
What a strange idea for public education in America. We all know that children should be haphazardly dumped into class rooms so that a teacher has to teach continuously to different levels of skills and abilities.

Posted by: bsallamack | January 5, 2011 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Can you write the letters of the alphabet? Can you spell well enough to string some sentences together in order to express your thoughts? Is your writing good enough for the college level? Is it good enough for you to get a job as a professional writer or journalist?

Many of us would say yes to the first two questions but "no" or "maybe" to the last two. That's because we know there's a huge difference between being able to write for practical purposes and being a competent "writer."

Most people understand what I have just said and would probably agree with it, but when it comes to reading, that is not the case. Just as there are two distinct levels in writing (simple mechanics and composition) there are two levels in reading: decoding ("sounding out" or being able to say the words) and comprehension. One is usually mastered by children by the third grade and the other continues to develop throughout life. One is a basic skill, usually mastered by young children and is comparable to spelling, while the other is a complex mental process akin to thinking.

Unfortunately many people who make decisions about "reading" don't really understand what reading is. Reading text is being able to get meaning from print. When children learn how to read, they must learn to "crack the code" just as they must learn to spell. Bright children are usually "reading everything by Christmas" in first grade while most of the rest can decode almost everything by third grade.

However, that's just the beginning. After that, reading progress depends on many complex mental functions that can be quickly summarized as "thinking." Comprehending the written text is many times more difficult than "sounding out" and that's where we run into difficulty.

Any teacher can tell you that the main reading problem is comprehension. We must help a child to understand a text about a farm when he has never been to a farm, doesn't know what a farm is, can decode words like silo and tractor but has no idea what they mean. In addition to that many children mouth the words correctly but are unable to concentrate on the meaning. This is analogous to what happens to adults when they "read" a whole page but have no clue about what they just "read."

Success for All, along with many other "miraculous" reading programs is designed mainly to teach beginning reading. That is very important and the evidence supports the success of this program, but people need to know that the real problem is the comprehension barrier so many children encounter when they enter the middle grades. It's called the "fourth grade slump" and there is no one program that can solve that complex problem.

For a look at a school that did a good job of teaching children "the basics" without really teaching them to read and write, read "Testing" by Linda Perstein. Just as there is no easy way to teach someone to think, there is also no easy way to teach him to read.

Complex problems demand complex solutions.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 5, 2011 2:42 PM | Report abuse

lisamc31: are you saying that Jay is involved in C.A.P. in ways other than being a panelist? If so, what are C.A.P.'s stances on education, and do you see Jay's involvement as cause for concern?

Posted by: Busboom | January 5, 2011 4:23 PM | Report abuse

Complex problems demand complex solutions.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher
Worthwhile view of children on reading but the reality is that in many cases complex problems demand simple solutions.

Learning to read is complex. The solution is to start children earlier than the first grade in public school.

Children need individual attention in learning to read. The solution is simple: use computers. The technology for helping children to learn early on how to read was available in 1993 with read along books from Disney.

It is difficult for a teacher to teach very different levels of children in a class room. The solution is simple: separate children in classes by their abilities.

The reality is that in many cases there are simple solutions to complex problems but that many are unwilling to accept the simple solutions.

Posted by: bsallamack | January 5, 2011 4:41 PM | Report abuse

For lisamc and busboom and others: has the dementia set in that far? I don't recall any involvement at all with Mr Soros or his CAP. Never met the guy. (I tend not to forget meeting billionaires.) As far as I know have never written about the organization. I have been on a lot of panels with multiple sponsors so I may have forgotten it was once one. Enlighten me as to what I did so I can respond halfway intelligently.

For mport84---I see yr point. You are entitled to make it. It just doesn't make much sense to me or the many teachers I have know and written about who are involved with some of the organizations you consider part of this aggrandizing corporate blob. If you ever write a piece about real kids harmed by these groups, let me know and we will do something on the blog. The test of all theories, at least for me, is what happens in the classroom, and you haven't given me anything on that.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 5, 2011 4:51 PM | Report abuse

Meanwhile,in Finland,children don't begin to learn to read until age 7. However do they manage to not panic that their 5 and 6 years olds might never catch up?

Posted by: incredulous
The reality is that children in Finland are required to go to child care that totally prepares them for formal education.

"But, while Finnish children don’t begin formal schooling until age 7, that doesn’t mean they’re lacking for education before that. In fact, Finnish children have access to very high-quality, affordable child care that meets most of the standards for what we in the United States would call preschool."

"the vast majority of Finnish first graders (7-year-olds in their first year of school) are reading mid-way through their first grade year, suggesting that the youngsters have a strong grounding in language and pre-literacy skills—which the National Curriculum Guidelines for Early Childhood Education and Care rightly emphasize—before they enter school. Second, Finnish educators and officials we spoke with attribute the nation’s success in international comparisons to their high-quality early childhood programs. An “absolutely important explanation behind these good results is the good early learning support,” provided by child care centers, one official from the National Board of Education told us."

Posted by: bsallamack | January 5, 2011 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Patient and helpful reader hjkmom found my 2002 magazine piece about SFA I was referring to. I added a link to it in my blog post above, but here it is in full form:¬Found=true

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 5, 2011 5:30 PM | Report abuse


I thought the solutions were simple too until I began my career as a reading specialist and first grade teacher. I still remember the day I met a five-year-old kindergarten student who could "read" everything but had absolutely no comprehension whatsoever even though he was a native English speaker. Then there was the third grade child who seemed normally intelligent and had good vision but could not learn to recognize a single word, except for her name. The other teachers, including another specialist, and I tried everything we knew but still the girl did not learn. Anyone who thinks there are simple solutions to reading problems has not taught many people to read.

Look at it this way: When you are reading what are you doing? You probably are not "sounding out" because you learned to do that so long ago that it has become automatic. What you ARE doing is thinking as you read. (What is this person saying? Oh, that's not right. I don't agree with that. She's wrong. I read an article in the Post that contradicts that. I'm going to explain about... and so forth). If a person is unable to do that, do you think it would be "simple" to teach him or her to do it; or to do it better? I can assure you that it is not. Yes, these thinking skills can certainly be taught, but it's far from easy.

I do agree that the Finns have discovered two good approaches that prevent reading problems from developing:

an informal, language-rich preschool program that prepares children for formal instruction;

a formal instruction program that begins at seven.

In our country many problems are caused by forcing very young (under seven) children to learn to read before they are ready. We could avoid many problems by delaying formal instruction until children are around seven years old. Informal instruction can still take place for children who show a readiness and an interest in learning to read.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 5, 2011 6:53 PM | Report abuse

Look at it this way: When you are reading what are you doing? You probably are not "sounding out" because you learned to do that so long ago that it has become automatic.
Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher
When I am reading I am not sounding out each words but I am automatically hearing the sounds. I am not reading out letters or individual sounds but words.

It really is simple in the sense that the different shapes of snowflakes are simple or the brain is working based upon the chemistry of potassium and sodium to create electrical charges.

I view reading simply as an extension of hearing the sounds of words and making sense out of the words. If children have problems in understanding speech they will have problem in reading.

I agree that many children are not prepared for school and we now make it the responsibility of teachers to overcome this lack of preparation for school. The Finns understand this and have programs so children are prepared for school instead of the pretense that teachers will simply overcome the problem.

Imagine if we accepted that no one should speak to children so that they are totally devoid of language skills when they entered public schools.

Waiting until children are seven would not do anything to improve matters. It is the preparing of children by the Finns before they are seven that is effective. If children are ignored until they are seven instead of just until they are five they will be no better able to learn. In fact the problem will be worse.

We still will not accept the reality that many children are totally unprepared for school and that teachers and schools can not easily overcome years of neglect.

As for the Finn they seem to have a simple solution for a complex problem. Consider that the problem is the fact of children not being prepared for school. They have accepted the simple solution to this complex problem by setting up programs so children are prepared.

Of course here in America we have also accepted a simple solution to this problem. Simply blame the teachers.

Posted by: bsallamack | January 5, 2011 9:21 PM | Report abuse


As soon as I hit "submit" on my last post, I knew I had made a mistake. Of course, I didn't mean that you "sound out" automatically; I meant that you automatically recognize the words. Thanks for the correction.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 5, 2011 10:08 PM | Report abuse

Jay, what makes you think that secret ballot was truly secret? If the principal wants the program, he/she will make sure the staff votes the right way. There are many innovative programs out there, and buy in from the staff is key to whether a program works, but buy in isn't accurately gauged by a vote or petition.

Posted by: janedoe5 | January 6, 2011 2:43 PM | Report abuse

First, children in Finland are read to constantly; their television programs, in whatever language, are captioned.

Second, a lot of reading problems, I am convinced, are actually poor vocabulary or social isolations problems. I was recently in a college accounting class where many of the students were struggling. Some didn't understand one problem because the professor said certain parts were "not germane," and they had never heard that word. Others had trouble with entries in the petty cash account or with problems involving inventory because they had no idea that petty cash existed or how stores got and paid for the goods they sold. Those of us with some business experience sailed through these problems, but had problems with stocks or bonds. We all agreed later that the text and the professor assumed a lot more business knowledge than we actually had.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | January 6, 2011 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Jay claimed in September that he was unaware of the Washington Post Corporation's specific financial investment in for-profit penetration of the public K-12 education revenue stream. He asked me to write a guest blog about the need for disclosure of that information, and I did. I worked hard to get the format across through buggy email and editing software. He spent ten weeks promising to publish it, but started claiming he needed his editor's permission.

Now this; his requirements have shifted. He realizes there are myriad for-profit agenda's at work, but isn't sure they're harmful, and so feels no need to disclose them. He says, "If you ever write a piece about real kids harmed by these groups, let me know and we will do something on the blog. The test of all theories, at least for me, is what happens in the classroom, and you haven't given me anything on that."

That's funny. You're an education reporter, Jay, and I am a classroom teacher in a low-income school who wrote to you hoping you would help uncover the truth about the harm being done to my students. But Jay, so far all you've done is lie to me about what you'll do on your blog, so why would I believe your newest evasion?

Did you know, I have a day job, and it is arguably one of the hardest on the planet? I have ten years of grade books with my student's names, but I can't publish them. I'll tell you one story, though. It is the same story I told a Boston Globe education reporter in 2008, along with my district's name, but she dropped it without follow-up.

An administrator has told me there are no written records regarding their "error" of reporting a 0% dropout rate in 2003, when the graduation rate was 53%. It went on for years. My girls came to me in tears during those years, because they were failed for "Tardy to School" and then signed out of their own public school against their will. I confronted the administrators.

Grown men said they said they were teaching "an important life lesson", because if the girls worked at a Mcdonald's they would be fired for being late. Everybody agrees poor girls are hurt if they drop out of school. Their babies are more likely to die, for instance, and they are more likely to become victims of interstate underage prostitution rings, like the one that was busted in my very town. But who is responsible? Anne Wheelock published a solid account of the hidden dropouts, and Linda Darling Hammond reported it fully and accurately in her latest book, but no attorney general has come to demand accountability.

I stand my ground and teach, through all of this, the most important subject I can. I think you've made your choice; words can't express the contempt I hold for your cowardice and opportunism.

Posted by: mport84 | January 6, 2011 8:49 PM | Report abuse

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