Back in the late 1960s, when Robert Slavin and Nancy Madden were undergraduates at Reed College in Portland, Ore., they used to spend hours and hours talking about school reform.
"Ah, the 'walking in the rain' story," Madden says with a slightly theatrical sigh as she and Slavin, her husband, tell the story of Success for All, one of the largest and most successful research-based school reform models in the country today.
"We met in college, and yeah, we'd walk around in the rain and talk about our school reform," she explains. "We got our first grant in 1970, one summer during college, and we hired a staff and we developed the core of World Lab, which is still part of the program now. It was a science and social studies-based curriculum designed to actively engage kids not achieving in school."
Slavin and Madden came to Hopkins' Center for Social Organization of Schools, where they studied early learning for at-risk children. In 1987, they introduced their first Success for All model in a Baltimore City school. Today, there are 1,100 Success for All schools in North America and five foreign countries. Nearly all of them are schoolwide Title I schools, which means that at least 50 percent of their students are eligible for free lunches.
Success for All has become so big that last summer it broke its formal affiliation with the university and became a nonprofit foundation on its own. In December, its 120 employees, who work in offices in the Homewood Apartments building and at 3505 N. Charles St., will move to a 32,500-square-foot space at 200 Towsontown Blvd. in Towson, where Success for All has signed a 10-year lease.
Madden is now Success for All's chief executive officer, and Slavin is president of its board, though he will remain at Hopkins, continuing his research on early learning. All the Hopkins researchers who have worked with Slavin on his reform model will remain at CSOS.
The need to break with Hopkins became self-evident last year, when Success for All added 250 new elementary schools to its ranks. It has since added 400 more schools, and is projecting at least 600 new schools next year. In years past, Hopkins always advanced in the spring the funds needed for printing costs, and Success for All would repay Hopkins in the fall, when the school systems paid their bills. But last year, the printing bill reached $10 million, and next year it may reach $19 million.
"This is not the kind of work of a university," Slavin says. "It was just getting weird."
"We've been growing every year, but this is a big leap," Madden says."With 1,100 schools, it can't be a mom and pop thing anymore. For example, we just hired 80 new trainers to add to the core of 80 already working. Next year we will probably hire another 25 trainers. With this size, you have to have systems, a management structure, people in finance, development; it has to be treated like a serious business."
It hasn't been an easy leap.
"We had to struggle very hard to remain not-for-profit," says Slavin. "It would have been incredibly easy to have done this as a for-profit. Investors are a whole lot easier than grants--and we had investors beating down our door."
Instead they had to figure out a way, with no assets, to get a line of credit for $8 million. After a lot of down-to-the-wire bank meetings and fund raising, they nailed down $1 million in grants and $2 million in subordinated loans and finally got the financing they needed. But the anxiety and sleepless nights were worth it, the two social scientists say, because they firmly believe that education should not be for-profit. They also think that if it were for-profit, their program would stumble.
"We have an incredible group of people working at Success for All," Madden says. "Our trainers fly all around the country, spending months in schools; it has become their lives--these are people who have to reintroduce themselves to their dogs when they get home. They are doing this not for the money but because they believe in it. They believe they are part of something big, something important. You can't trade that kind of commitment."
Remaining nonprofit is also important as the program gets bigger and casts a longer and longer shadow over other school reform models. It is one of only a handful of school reform models in the country that are research-based, and it is by far the largest.
"From time to time, we get suspicion from teachers and schools, but we can always tell them we're not-for-profit," Slavin says. "And that makes a big difference."
One of the secrets to Success for All's success is that it requires, before entering any school, an 80 percent buy-in vote by each school's entire staff. Success for All is a rigorous program, for both its students and teachers, and it requires an entire school to change the way it teaches. Without the commitment of the teaching staff, Slavin and Madden have learned that their program will fail.
The entire curriculum of a Success for All school is based on proven research. Slavin and other CSOS researchers identified curriculum strategies that yielded the best results, like regrouping students according to their reading levels, balancing phonics and meaning, and committing to a 90-minute reading session at the beginning of the day. The program also specifies how to best coordinate the efforts of teachers, social workers, tutors and parents so that every child is continually assessed and no child is allowed to slip through the cracks. It is a program, says Slavin, that can reduce the need for special education placement by 50 percent and virtually eliminates retention in its schools.
It is so effective that last year Success for All was the model for a congressional bill that allocated $145 million in grants to Title I schools wishing to implement research-based, comprehensive, whole school reform models.
And school districts around the country, especially ones facing funding equity issues in courts, are eyeing the program after the New Jersey Supreme Court last May urged its state's Department of Education to implement Success for All in 28 impoverished districts. Slavin had to remind the court of the 80 percent teacher buy-in requirement, and so the mandate was changed to allow other research-based whole school reform models.
No other state court has called for such sweeping reorganization of its elementary schools, but Slavin predicts more court mandates are on the horizon. And since there are very few research-based programs that are designed in a way that they can be replicated in a large mass of schools, more and more school districts will be calling Success for All.
"There are 20,000 elementary schools that qualify for schoolwide Title I status," Slavin says. "We'll never be in all these schools, but we want to be in every needy school that wants us. What we hope will happen as we grow bigger, is not for every school in America to use this program but for every school to look at us and say, Why should we do any worse than they do?' We want to change the psychology of despair to one of, There are things we know how to do, and we know what works. And to do any less than what we already know we can do would be unacceptable, criminal.' "