Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 2000
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APRIL 2000


Robert Slavin's school reform model is giving learning a boost in classrooms around the world.
APRIL 2000
Pioneers of Promise

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How Do You
Spell Success?

By Penny Campoli '01

In Owings Mills Elementary School, near Baltimore, paper bells decorate the white walls near the main entrance. On them fifth-graders have written various New Year's resolutions. In crooked script, one says, My academic goal is to pass the 5th grade. I will achieve this by doing my work. To improve that youngster's chances of passing all grades, Owings Mills six years ago tore out its old curriculum and put in a program devised by Robert Slavin, principal research scientist at the Hopkins Center for Social Organization of Schools (CSOS).

The program, Success for All, emphasizes reading, writing, and early intervention to resolve learning problems, especially for elementary schools with significant numbers of at-risk students. "It covers soup to nuts," Slavin says. When a school agrees to adopt the program, CSOS restructures its curriculum, implementing an instructional program that groups readers by ability, not grade, and emphasizes cooperative learning among the students. Every schoolday features a 90-minute intensive reading period. Kids experiencing problems get one-on-one tutoring as early as possible. A family support team promotes and assists parental involvement in their children's education. Students, and parents, are taught how to solve disputes without fighting. Says Slavin, "Sometimes parents say, 'Hit them back, stand up for your dignity'--advice that gets the kid in trouble in school. That's why we have our parent outreach."

Slavin began researching many of the program's elements in 1975. The first school signed on in 1987, a year after he began the Success for All project. Today, 1,500 schools in the United States and abroad have implemented the program, and Slavin says that he expects it to be in 2,000 locations soon. Earlier this year, the program received $14.3 million in federal funding to expand its curriculum to middle schools. Success for All's rapid expansion prompted Slavin in 1998 to spin off the program from CSOS. He created the nonprofit Success for All Foundation. Led by former Hopkins research scientist Nancy Madden, it employs 350 people and is headquartered in Towson.

What accounts for the program's burgeoning popularity? For one thing, Success for All gets results. A dozen school districts have evaluated Success for All versus a control group, and found that by the first grade students perform approximately three months ahead of comparison students, and by fifth grade are more than a year ahead, Slavin says. Effects are particularly notable for students who are most at risk--those whose grades put them in the lowest 25 percent of their age groups. Last year, when the federal government commissioned the American Institutes of Research to study the 24 most commonly used school reform programs, Success for All came in first on its list of most effective models.

To work at all, Slavin says, Success for All must have the widespread support of teachers. That's why he requires the program to be put to a vote in each school; at least 80 percent of faculty and staff must vote in favor before it can be adopted. Such support is important because Success for All doesn't come cheaply. Slavin estimates first-year start-up costs to be $70,000 to $75,000 per school. That drops to an average of $20,000 to $23,000 by the third year. These costs cover visits by Success for All counselors for teacher training, a new complete curriculum, training and curriculum materials, and follow-up visits by Success for All advisors. To defray these expenses, schools can apply for federal funds provided under the Comprehensive School Reform Act.

"Kids don't see the structure."

Because of the program's highly structured curriculum, says Slavin, "some teachers complain that their creativity is inhibited, although most find plenty of room for their own style once they get under way. Disneyland is very structured, but kids don't see the structure, which makes fun possible." Lauren Zimmerman, a teacher at Owings Mills, adds, "The structure makes it predictable, and kids know what to expect. It builds on the lessons before." Maralee Clark, coordinator of the program in Owings Mills, notes that her school's reading test scores have gone up every year since the school implemented the new curriculum.

In the Owings Mills school, a few students linger in the halls, waiting for class to begin. One pupil has the full attention of an older girl. He shows her his folder and asks her to test him on spelling. "Scrape" is on his list. The boy walks in circles, hands in his pockets, spelling aloud: "S...C...R...A...P." His teacher overhears and asks him, "Now, what makes the A long?"

The boy thinks for a moment, then replies, E.