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Success For All Comer School
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KIPP High Schools That Work

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by Sarah Colt

Garnet Mell teaches her classes based on scripted lessons plans

Second grade teacher Garnet Mell teaches her classes based on scripted lessons plans from Success for All.

“It was drastic,” says veteran elementary school teacher Nancy Raschko on implementing a scripted curriculum twenty years into her career. “I felt like going back and being a student teacher again where you had to do things in a very scripted way.”

Raschko is a petite woman in her fifties who joined the faculty of Centennial Elementary in Mount Vernon, Washington when its doors opened in 1989. Back then, as a first grade teacher, Raschko taught according to her training and personal creativity. Her classroom was her domain. But all that changed six years ago when her school adopted a reading curriculum called Success for All. She likens the experience to “taking a professional athlete and having them change the way they play.”

Nancy Raschko’s difficulties in adopting Success for All are not uncommon. Experienced teachers from Maine to California are bridling against the current trend toward scripted curriculums. Programs like Success For All, Direct Instruction and Open Court, to name just a few, require teachers to follow carefully laid out lesson plans to teach reading, math and science.

The federal government’s program No Child Left Behind, passed in 2001, encourages this trend with its initiative called “Reading First” that allocates $6 billion over six years to states that guarantee they will implement programs using proven methods and programs.

Critics of scripted programs worry that curriculums are too narrowly focused on the basics and teachers are being turned into robots rather than working as creative professionals. “A trained monkey could do this program,” says Janice Auld, president of the North Sacramento Education Association, about adopting a reading program in her district in California. As an experienced teacher she found the process of adopting her district’s program “humiliating and demeaning.”

Educators like Anthony Alvarado, former superintendent of District 2 in New York City, warns that “the worst part of bureaucracy is the dehumanization it brings.” His reform efforts have turned failing schools around by focusing on professional development – “Our vision of instructional improvement depends heavily on people being willing to take initiative, to take risks and take responsibility for themselves, for students and for each other.” Scripted programs replace the do-it-yourself approach and so they are often described as “teacher proof” because they don’t require experience or training to follow the prepared materials.

Eric Smith, the superintendent responsible for success in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina, advocates the scripted strategy. He argues that in order to create change on a large scale, schools must get on the same page with their curriculum so that teachers know what is expected. He believes that because of the diversity of experience among teachers, especially in inner city schools, it is “the job of central administration…the job of the superintendent of schools to bring that kind of clarity to the classroom and give the teachers the strategies that will help them to be successful.”

Like many schools across the country, Centennial Elementary, where Nancy Raschko teaches, adopted the reading program Success for All in response to falling test scores. Shifting demographics in Mount Vernon meant that immigrant children from Mexico were coming to school lacking literacy in English, and the school needed a new teaching strategy. Success for All requires teacher buy-in with an 80% majority vote. Raschko had mixed feelings, “I was a little bit reluctant because I didn’t know exactly how this would be and I didn’t know for sure that this was the answer,” she says. “But I voted for it because we obviously needed to do a better job.”

Designed by Johns Hopkins University educator Bob Slavin in the mid ’80s for failing inner city schools in Baltimore, Success for All requires a dedicated 90 minutes of reading instruction every day. Within that period, teachers are trained to follow a pre-ordained lesson plan that has every minute of time filled with strategies to teach reading to every child in the class. In first grade this means mostly phonics drills so children learn letter sounds. As the students advance, the lesson plans become more complex, focusing on comprehension, story analysis and examining text for deeper meaning.

“One of the things that’s most characteristic of Success for All is that we try not leave very much to chance,” says Slavin, “We have a term within the organization which is ‘relentlessness’…And relentlessness means that you don’t just give it your best shot and hope for the best…We want every minute of the school day used for productive activities that we know from research to be the most effective things we can provide.”

Raschko describes her first days teaching Success for All as “totally different than I had ever taught reading before.” She found the pacing within the 90 minute reading block unrealistic. “It was impossible to get everything done the way it was supposed to be,” she asserts. “You have the kids looking at you like ‘what did you say?’ and you’re thinking ‘sorry, it’s 8:10 gotta move on honey.’ ” She remembers her first few months as a time where, “there was no thinking on your feet…we were to do exactly as we were instructed to deliver the program.” She wondered to herself, “what is [Success for All] going to do to my creativity and flexibility?”

Slavin defends his program. “In education, for some reason, we’ve resisted the idea that good practice can be replicated, and we’re always getting all misty eyed and romantic about some outstanding principal in the inner city who’s doing something that may be absolutely wonderful,” he says. “But you can climb to the top of their building and probably see three other buildings from there that are doing the most horrible things to children. And they will never change what they’re doing on the basis of what that one wonderful principal is doing until you take what that wonderful principal is doing and make into something that’s got legs that can travel and that can be replicated in other locations.”

To develop Success for All, Slavin incorporated teaching methods that had been tested in classrooms and analyzed for effectiveness. Slavin explains the approach: “If you’re in business, you watch your quarterly results very closely to know whether your business strategies are paying off. If you’re a physician, you watch the patient’s temperature or lung function or whatever it might be very closely to see whether you’re providing the right kind of treatment. In any successful field, people watch outcomes very, very closely. In education we have to do the same.”

Nancy Raschko started to see a change in her students several months into implementing Success for All – the kids from poorer backgrounds with little English knowledge were learning to read. “When some of those [struggling] kids start believing that they too can read and that they want to read – that’s what teaching is about, I think. It’s helping empower kids so that they can go on to learn and to feel that they can learn anything.” She also noticed a change in her teaching – she started internalizing the strategies and using them in all her classes, not just during the reading period.

Raschko’s experience in her classroom was reflected in test scores that began rising across the Mount Vernon school district. David Scott, one of the district officials responsible for implementing Success for All, has been extremely pleased with the results – “at the same time that the challenges have increased due to our increase in students of poverty and increase of students that have English as a second language, scores have gone up by 25% at least.”

The success in Mount Vernon has been replicated across the country where Success for All is being used in 1300 schools nationwide. A majority of the Success for All schools are located in America’s inner cities where many people have given up on teaching children from violent neighborhoods and high poverty backgrounds. A recent study that examined 38 schools using Success for All found that students read better after two years in the program and outpace students in regular classrooms by up to half a school year.

Steve Fleischman of the American Institutes for Research explains the program’s success. “Although it’s not popular to say, one of the likely reasons why Success for All is as successful as it is, is its level of standardization,” asserts Fleischman. “It is sometimes said that Success for All is kind of like the Starbucks of education.”

That standardization means teachers, whether they have years of experience like Nancy Raschko, or have just graduated from teacher training programs, are provided a reliable method for teaching. For young teachers like Nicole Barrow, who works in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina, working with a scripted curriculum, not Success for All but one designed by district administrators, helped her tremendously. “Things were written down for me…as a beginning teacher, you need that foundation, and that’s what I needed to be successful with my kids” says Barrow.

Standardization also means that as poor families move around because of unstable employment and housing, their children’s education doesn’t suffer because all schools in the area use the same program. David Scott explains that with high mobility rates within Mount Vernon “it sure is nice to have one reading program.”

Nancy Raschko found that as she and her colleagues became more comfortable with implementation, the Success for All administrators became more flexible. They listened to the teachers’ feedback and both sides worked together to improve the program. When Centennial found that many second graders were getting stuck on one lesson plan, they worked with Success for All to create “Fast Track Phonics” to help the students move forward more quickly. For Raschko this back and forth was critical to implementation, “They aren’t looking at national data and making decisions,” she says. “They’re looking at our own school data and helping us meet our specific school’s needs.”

Andrea Guy, a first grade teacher at Centennial, brings more of her own creativity into the program now that she has mastered the basics of implementation. “At the very beginning I felt very programmed, very much a clock watcher, very much ‘do not stray from this path’,” she recalls. But now, after several years with the program, she says, “I don’t feel that way from Success for All anymore. I feel that they allow a little bit for your personality…”

When Success for All came up for renewal recently in Mount Vernon schools, Raschko voted yes. “I voted yes because even though at times it felt that they were pushing, pushing, pushing, teachers and students, the push turned out to be a good push and the results of the push were positive.”

Sitting in her classroom on a sunny spring afternoon, Raschko reflects on her experience implementing Success for All. “It makes me very cognizant of the choices I am making during the day when I am teaching,” she concludes. “I am different as a teacher.”

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