Effective reading program shelved, then amazingly reborn
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.
| 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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