INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT SLAVIN, CO-FOUNDER SUCCESS FOR ALL
Hedrick Smith: Bob, what is Success for All? Is it a curriculum? Is it a strategy?
Robert Slavin: We call it a comprehensive
reform model for elementary and middle schools. And what a comprehensive reform
model means is a program to restructure what schools do, including curriculum,
but also including instruction, professional development, accommodations for children
who are having difficulties, school organization – soup to nuts, everything that
goes into making a school effective.
Smith: Is Success for All for students or
is it for teachers?
Slavin: Success for All ultimately is for
students. Teachers are a means to get to students, clearly. But we’re not providing
direct services to students. What we do in Success for All is to provide a great
deal of professional development and materials for teachers and principals and
district officials to use to improve educational outcomes for children.
Smith: What’s your objective in Success for
Slavin: It’s really implied by the name. What
we would say is our most important objective in Success for All is to get every
single child to be successful, every single child to master the basic curriculum,
to achieve the higher order objectives that every parent would want for their child
and that our society demands for every child.
Smith: But is it across the board? It’s a
reading program, right?
Slavin: The main focus has been reading, writing
and language arts, although, we also have a math program. And we’ve developed science
and social studies as well. So in our grandest conception, it’s much more than
a reading program. But as a practical matter, the great majority of schools that
we work with are using just the reading, writing and language arts parts of the
Smith: How did you get into this particular
program? What is it that prompted you and your colleagues to formulate Success
Slavin: The immediate drive was something
that happened in 1986 when we were approached at Johns Hopkins University by the
superintendent of the Baltimore City Schools. She sent a representative who engaged
us in a series of discussions about ‘what would you do in an inner city impoverished
elementary school if you could have the freedom to do anything you thought was
necessary to do?’
We had been working for many years before that on a variety of instructional
programs and had a pretty good idea about how to restructure classrooms. This got
us to thinking about how you would restructure schools to try to make sure that
all children could be successful. And so we engaged in a series of discussions
and finally came to an agreement that we would try a model based on the idea that
every single child was going to be successful no matter what – that we were going
to start with children from pre- kindergarten and kindergarten forward, with the
idea that we were going to provide the best instruction we knew how to provide.
We were going to monitor children’s progress very closely. We were going to identify
the point at which children started to fall behind and provide intensive remedial
support or whatever is necessary for the child. And in that way try to have all
children be able to get through the elementary years in good shape with whatever
that was going to require.
Smith: So Success for All is a program that
is generated by the need of inner city kids, as seen by their school superintendent
Slavin: That was the original conception.
Since then, we’ve done a lot of work with rural schools and with schools in Indian
reservations, and schools in many different circumstances including schools in
countries other than the U.S. But the original conception was: what could you do
for inner city schools in which so many children were failing in the very early
elementary years? How could you turn that around and have children be successful?
Smith: And this is three years after the report “A
Nation at Risk.” This is right in the heat of that sense that we had a nation failing – mediocre,
if not failing schools, particularly in the inner cities. I mean we’re right in
the heart, the crucible of that period.
Slavin: I think an important element of what
was going on at the time was the “Nation at Risk” report. But that was by no means
the first or the only influential report or sound of alarm. We’ve known for a long
time that our inner city schools are in deep difficulty. But it became a major
part of the discussion about how school reform could happen. Not only happen in
one school or two schools or in a handful of specially selected places, but how
it could happen on a broad scale.
Even from the very beginning in our very first school, we consciously did not
put into that school things that couldn’t be replicated. We didn’t put in vast
amounts of money, or specially selected staff, or specially selected kids, or other
things that you could never see again because we knew that demonstrating in one
school that all children could learn would be a useful thing. But we wanted to
do something much broader than that, which is to demonstrate that it’s not necessary
to have so many schools where so many children fail year in and year out.
Smith: Now what do you do? The Baltimore superintendent
says to you, “You’ve got free run, do whatever you want.” It sounds ideal and yet,
at the same time, overwhelming. You’ve got total freedom. Do you have a lot of
things in your kit? Do you have a whole lot of ideas or do you have to create a
whole system from nothing? What do you do in response to that challenge?
Slavin: We have developed a pretty standard
way of approaching this issue of total school reform that we adapt for different
circumstances. So it won’t look exactly the same in a rural place, or it will be
adapted if there are many English language learners. But basically, there’s a consistent
strategy that we try to apply and the strategy is based on the best research we
know about. It was originally designed to put into practice things that had been
shown in education research to be effective. And as research has gone forward – both
our research and other people’s – we keep changing the program to have it consistently
reflect what’s considered effective practice.
Smith: What does that mean “research based?”
Slavin: A research-based program is one that has been evaluated in real schools over at least a year, hopefully many times in comparison to control groups. That’s an absolutely essential part of what we consider to be something that is research-based and that often is left out when people talk about what’s research-based and what’s not.
In education for some reason, we have done very little experimentation where we compare experimental and control groups to see which of them produces better outcomes for children. But the evidence that does exist is something that we take very seriously. And things that have been shown in many studies to be more effective than usual practice are the things that we’re going to include in the program. We’ve done a great deal of research on the outcomes of the overall program in the same way by comparing the outcomes in Success
for All schools to those in matched comparison schools.
Smith: Let’s take a look at some central elements in your program – the grouping by ability and the constant regrouping every eight weeks. Why do you do that?
Slavin: What we’re using there is something called the Joplin Plan. The Joplin Plan was first described in 1954. So this is not exactly cutting edge as a concept. The concept is that children are assessed every nine weeks and, based on those assessments, they’re placed in reading groups according to their reading level, but more or less regardless of their age.
That means that you could have a second grade level reading class with some real sharp first graders, some second graders who are on level, and some third graders who are behind. And we try not to have kids who are shaving in those low-level reading groups. So we do have some different ways of dealing with children who are very far behind. But the concept is to provide a reading class that is exactly at the level that every child needs, even if that means putting together children who are of different ages.
Then, nine weeks later, the children are assessed again and we’re looking for children who have made very good progress, who can be accelerated to the next level. Those children who are doing fine, they’re plodding along to stay in that group and continue along at a good pace. Those children who are having difficulty in that group receive tutoring or other kinds of assistance so that they can stay up. We try not to move children down a group.
But that basic idea of doing cross-grade grouping – we wouldn’t call it ability grouping, we’d call it performance grouping – but cross-grade grouping according to your reading level has been evaluated many times outside of the context of Success for All. We did a review of the literature on this and found it to be the most effective grouping strategy and that’s why it went into the program.
Smith: How do you know that grouping by performance works better than grouping by age?
Slavin: We did a review of the literature and looked at studies that compared schools that use that kind of performance grouping to schools that use the top, middle, low group within their class. And time and time again, the schools that use the performance grouping got better results.
Smith: A lot of people worry that bigger kids, older kids will be resistant if you put a slow reading fourth grader into a group of kids who are reading at a fast first grade level. That the older kids put in with younger kids will feel embarrassed and won’t perform well. Other people are saying, “Put them in with their skill level, their performance level and they’ll actually do better.” What’s the experience in the field? Do older kids start to perform better?
Slavin: What we found is that the children who are older and reading below level earn the difficult spot no matter what you do with them. They don’t like being in the low reading group either. It’s not an ideal placement for them either.
What they do like is the opportunity to see success, the opportunity to learn reading, to succeed at it now, to be able to move forward. If they do well – and usually they do – then we can advance them toward their appropriate grade level over a period of time. But you know, you just have a dilemma when you’ve got a fourth or fifth grader who’s reading way below grade level that you have to deal with one way or another.
Smith: So what you’re saying is put a kid at the level where they’re performing and they’ve got a chance to see both success and progress more quickly than if you stick them in with their age group, where they tend to be shy, hold back, not perform well?
Slavin: Yes. What we’re saying is that if you have children at their appropriate level in reading – this is not necessarily true of everything – but in reading you want to have children reading material that they can succeed at. If you’re failing at figuring out every other word, you’re not getting anything from what you’re reading. We want children to be at a point where they can be succeeding. But we don’t want to let them stay at a low level for a long time and then just plod along with younger kids. We want them to start with success, but then to steam forward as rapidly as they can.
Smith: And what you’re saying is that that changes motivation, that the motivation picks up for those kids?
Slavin: Absolutely. The best motivator, not just for kids but for everybody, the best motivator is success. There’s just nothing that compares to it. And coming in day after day after day and experiencing failure is not going to motivate anybody. If you have children who are at a level where they’re likely to be successful, they can profit from the instruction that the teacher is providing and then move forward, then they feel very good about themselves. Whereas if you try to do something else and you say, “Well, you know, we hate to discourage the kids by putting them in a class where they’re the tallest,” and they experience failure every day, you’re just not getting any benefit.
Smith: Now, testing, testing, testing every eight weeks, every nine weeks. We all had our weekly test, but these are pretty important evaluations you’re doing every eight weeks here. And people are regrouped on that basis. Why is that testing so often so important?
Slavin: I think in education you have to very closely following the progress of children. Children’s progress is quirky and it is very easy to make mistakes and to have children who are placed in the wrong place or getting instruction that’s not useful to them.
You want to be watching for the moment when success begins to happen so that you can then challenge the child appropriately. And you want to be watching closely for situations where the child has run into trouble so that you can deal with it right now rather than letting it go for a long time.
I’ve looked at many different kinds of programs that people have tried in education over many years and one of the things that characterizes a broad range of programs that work is an almost fanatical attention to the progress of the child and a fanatical attention trying to match the level and nature of instruction to the needs of individual children.
Smith: So what you’re saying is the tests are not there primarily to give the kid a grade; the tests are there to guide the teachers and the educators how to reach that kid.
Slavin: Exactly. 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.
Smith: Let me ask you a little bit about the way you’ve constructed the program. It looks as though every single element of what’s going in a Success for All classroom matters. Is that right?
Slavin: I hope so. What we’ve tried to do is to engineer every aspect of the lesson, every aspect of school organization and classroom organization to have effective programs being used all the time.
One of the things that’s most characteristic of Success for All is that we try not to leave very much to chance. We have a sort of a term within the organization which is “relentlessness” as being the goal of the organization. And relentlessness means that you don’t just give it your best shot and hope for the best. You’re constantly trying new things, different things and sticking at it until you’ve succeeded with every child or with every school and with every circumstance. And that’s down to the level of minute-by-minute in the classroom. 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.
Smith: It’s interesting you say that because talking with Andrea Guy, one of the first grade teachers here, I asked her whether or not her teaching and her attitudes had changed in any way. She said, “Yes, one thing. I have absolutely no extra time. Every minute counts.”
Slavin: Yeah and I think if you spoke to a lot of Success for All teachers, they would say the same. When we start the program the first year invariably the response we get is, “There’s no way on God’s green earth we can fit all of this stuff in 90 minutes. Can’t be done. Absolutely totally impossible. It can’t be done.” And we come back and say,
“We have schools all over America that are doing this in 90 minutes. And you’ll find that you just have to become more efficient in how you use your time.” They say, “It can’t be done. Can’t be done. Can’t be done.”
We come back by Thanksgiving, or maybe January and by then, the teachers have usually figured out, yes, it can be done. And their way of thinking about every minute has totally changed to become as focused as we are on the meaning of every minute of instruction.
We’re talking in most cases about children who are from poverty, from difficult circumstances. They get one chance at first grade. They have got to succeed in first grade. There is no back up. There’s nothing that’s going to help them if they don’t succeed the first time in kindergarten, the first time in first grade, the first time in second grade and so on.
You cannot allow that special opportunity – to spend 90 minutes with a child and have them move forward in terms of building themselves as readers or as writers or whatever the subject may be – you can’t allow that to go past without taking advantage of the best things you know how to do. And I think teachers in ordinary schools don’t see things that way. They think that if you show up, you work hard, you do the best you can do – and hope that’s going to be beneficial to children. They come to see things very differently; we have a very limited time with these children to really make a profound difference in their lives and we can’t let that slip.
Smith: We saw a lesson [in Andrea Guy’s classroom] on the “Ouch” sound. The kids were getting “OW” and “O-U.” They saw it on the blackboard, in words. They were chanting the words aloud, to cards, doing it on the page, then reading a paragraph. What is that about? It’s almost like slicing and dicing the approach in a whole lot of different ways. Why?
Slavin: One of the things that we’re trying to build in our Success for All programs – all of them – is to have many pathways for children to learn the content that they’re being taught. One of the things that we know from educational psychology, from cognitive psychology, is that you learn best if you’ve learned the same idea through your ears, through your eyes, through your senses. If you have many different pathways to that information, you’re much more likely to be able to recall it and to have it be automatic than if you only have one way.
Most teachers not in Success for All schools make extensive use of talking at kids or having kids try to read things. And the kids have it their minds in only one way, and then it’s hard to retrieve. Our idea is to try to have the same idea be presented in many different ways so that kids hear it from a teacher. They see it demonstrated. They do it with a partner. They do it with something that may involve putting their hands on something so that it becomes solid with them. And they can track back in their minds to recall the sound that “OW” makes because they’ve seen a cow. They’ve seen a little skit that involves a cow that’s walking on hot sand and saying “Ow! Ow! Ow!” And they can remember the “Ow!” and the cow, put those things together. They remember the cow is brown. All of those things help them to get back to the sound.
Smith: We also saw a chipmunk eating cheese – what was it?
Slavin: Yeah, there’s a chipmunk chewing cheese. We have all of these corny ways to try to associate the sound and the letter in children’s minds in many different ways. When the chipmunk chews cheese he’s going “Ch, ch, ch, ch, ch” so that you can associate not only the “Ch” with chipmunk but also the “Ch,” chipmunk and the sound “ch, ch, ch” that a chipmunk would be making if he was chewing on cheese.
Smith: When you see the teacher in the classroom with the cards, this is the material you’ve provided?
Slavin: That’s right.
Smith: You guys are like the playwright. It’s almost like watching a performance when we’re watching one of those teachers do that.
Slavin: I think a performance is a good analogy for what we’re doing. Actually, it’s a very good analogy because the playwright can write the script, but the actors make it alive. You can have the same script done well or done poorly because the actors put themselves into it. But yes, we want to have the good instruction used every single day with every single kid. And it’s just not going to happen if you don’t provide teachers with the materials and the professional development and the backup and the assistance to help them use those things. It does take a lot of development, a lot of work to sweat the details, but it’s in those details that children will succeed or not succeed.
Smith: You’ve told me the story about the Baltimore superintendent. But what is it that personally got you into Success for All? What caused you to create this system?
Slavin: Before we [Slavin and his wife, Success for All co-founder Nancy Madden] got into Success for All, we’d been working in school research for more than a decade. So we spent a lot of time in schools. Nancy and I were both special education teachers long ago.
If you spend a lot of time in schools, particularly in high poverty schools, it makes you furious at what happens. You see these children who are so bright-eyed and bushy- tailed, who are so eager to learn when they come into school, who have parents who care about them so deeply and really want them to succeed. And you know what happens to them when they don’t succeed? For disadvantaged children success in school is the only way out. It’s very unlikely that anything else will rescue them. And you see teachers who are well meaning who are murdering these children. They’re providing instruction that’s very slow, that’s very inefficient. And you can trace the projection forward about what’s going to happen to children if they continue to get very low quality instruction.
The thing that motivates us is a feeling that children deserve much better than that and that schools can be far more effective than they have been for children from disadvantaged homes. We’re leftovers from the ’60s and so you know we’ve got this very deep social commitment to see that children succeed, whatever their social backgrounds are.
Smith: You said, “Children deserve better than that.” I need to know what the “that” is.
Slavin: Children deserve the best instruction that we can provide them. And so many children in schools that serve many disadvantaged children are getting instruction that is very poor, that’s very slow, that’s not attune to their needs. And as a result they fail in extraordinarily large numbers. They end up in special education. They end up being retained. They end up losing motivation. They end up getting into delinquent activities when they hit middle school. And why? Just because of frustration, because of failure that was absolutely preventable.
And I think that we have a sense of social mission, if you will, to say that this is unacceptable. It’s absolutely a crime to provide children with schooling that’s any less outstanding than it needs to be to have children succeed.
Smith: So what you’re saying is Success for All is born out of frustration, need, and idealism in a way. You’re frustrated at a system you’re looking at. You see an incredible need on the part of the kids. And you have the ideals and believe it can be fixed.
When the Baltimore school superintendent comes to you and says, “I got a whole slew of kids that are just not making it. What can you do, Bob?” What’s your reaction? I mean, you grab onto it.
Slavin: Absolutely. And if I have to summarize it, what really got us into this is an equal measure of love and anger. You see these little kids coming into school; these are wonderful children. They are just so full of creativity and enthusiasm. And to see them slapped down by the system so often or experiencing failure in first grade, in second grade, much less middle school or high school, is just wrong.
And a large part of what motivates, I think, all of us involved in Success for All is a feeling that that has to change, that we need to have schools that are confident as well as caring. That are capable of providing children, no matter what their background may be, with high quality instruction.
Smith: A lot of people in this country say public schools don’t work. Public schools can’t work. Public schools can’t reach the kids who come out of high poverty homes, who come out of minority homes, particularly who come out of homes of immigrants who arrive here without much English language. That this is hopeless, that we ought to give up on the task. What’s your answer to them?
Slavin: I’d say that’s just wrong and that public schools are in difficulty. I understand where the frustration comes from that makes people think that public schools can’t work. But so are private schools. There aren’t a large number of fantastic demonstrations of where private schools or parochial schools have done substantially better with equivalent groups of kids. It’s just the private schools and parochial schools usually deal with kids who have fewer problems.
The issue for all schools, regardless of who they serve, is that they are not using the most effective practices they can. When we have effective practices that are used with care, with intelligence, with adequate funding, with adequate supports then those schools will be effective whether they’re public schools, private schools, parochial schools, charter schools, vouchers, whatever.
I have nothing against all of those other alternatives to public schools but whatever people decide, however people decide that they’re going to fund schools – be it public or private or whatever – at the end of the day they’re going to have to have a curriculum. They’re going to have to have instruction, classroom management, school organization, all the things that we’re trying to change. And they won’t be effective unless they have those things in place well regardless of who pays for them.
Smith: Another thing you believe in is replication. Can you actually deliver a package that can be replicated in hundreds and hundreds of schools across this country?
Slavin: Well, in the case of Success for All we’re working right now with about 1500 schools from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. And over the years, more than one million children have been through these schools. So obviously we have one demonstration that you can replicate something.
We’re not the only one. There are other programs, too, that have also shown that good practice can be replicated. And I think that in all the successful parts of our society what we do when we are really serious about something is we establish models of what can work, and then we figure out how to make them replicable. We do that in medicine. We do that in technology. We do that in agriculture. We base things on good research. We show what works and then we figure out ways to make it work on a broad scale.
In education, for some reason, we’ve resisted this. 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. 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 their doing on the basis of what that one wonderful principal is doing until you take what that wonderful principal is doing and make it into something that’s got legs, that can travel and that can be replicated in other locations.
Smith: So that’s Success for All – legs traveling to other locations?
Slavin: A key part of it is. First establishing what works on a small scale and then figuring out how to create an organization in a system that can support quality practice on a scale that matters at the policy level.
Smith: And research-based means figuring out what works; testing it out against competitive models?
Slavin: Yes. It means using exactly the same techniques that are used to validate a medical technique, or an agricultural technique, or something else, which is to compare it to what’s current practice in a very rigorously designed experiment.
Smith: Now one of the things we see in your schools is a lot of tutoring. Why is tutoring so important? And who is it most important for?
Slavin: Well, tutoring is important because no matter how effective your basic instruction is, there will be individual children who will still have difficulties. And we know from a lot of research and common sense that one-to-one is the most effective form of education.
You can’t afford one-to-one for everybody all the time, so you’ve got to limit it to the circumstances in which it’s most needed. What we try to do is to identify individual children who, despite the very best of instruction that we’re able to provide, are just not making it adequately and provide them with just 20 minutes a day of one-to-one instruction that’s very closely associated with what they’re doing in the classroom. So that it’s helping them succeed in the classroom, rather than being a completely parallel system for the children.
Smith: So that tutoring is on the same material, same word sounds, same reading skills, same kind of performance that’s going on in the classroom?
Slavin: Exactly. So that you can help the child succeed where it matters – in the classroom – rather than expecting that in a one-to-one setting, 20 minutes a day, that you’re going to have somebody teach a kid to read and ignore what’s going on in the regular classroom.
Smith: We’re sitting in Centennial School in Mt. Vernon, Washington, right now and you and I saw this morning just a slew of kids, one wave after another, [coming in for tutoring.] I mean a very impressive commitment. What was your reaction to the tutoring that you saw at Centennial here today?
Slavin: Well, I was very glad to see the amount of tutoring that they have at Centennial. That’s a good deal more than is typical of our Success for All schools nationally. But what it speaks to is a genuine commitment on the part of the principal, and the part of the school administration in the district as a whole, to the same goals that we set out with – seeing that every single child will be successful.
We use the title Success for All. It’s kind of a corny name that promises more than probably it can ever achieve, but the purpose is to communicate the idea that we’re not done until every single child is successful.
If you [implement] Success for All, the program, without tutoring, you will still get success for most. But when you’re really going for all, the tutoring is a key part of the approach – to try to work intensively with the children who are most at risk, most likely to fail without it.
Smith: And if a school’s got limited resources, where do they target their tutoring?
Slavin: We ask them to target it to the first graders, and then second priority the second graders, and third priority the third graders. The reason is that in reading, those are the grades where children are really making a decision whether they’re successful or not successful.
If you look at children who have been allowed to slide and are not reading by third grade, the prediction is shockingly negative. It’s shockingly accurate in predicting very bad outcomes for that child. Whereas if you catch a child in first grade – a child that is not learning to read – you provide them with them a tutor and then they succeed in reading. Then they maintain that success throughout their time is school.
Smith: So what you’re saying is put the tutoring in on first grade. That’s the most critical grade. If you make it there, you’ve got a chance.
Slavin: First, reading is a very special subject. It’s essentially taught in first grade. For the whole rest of your life you’re practicing it, and there’s still a great deal more to learn after first grade but you largely make up your mind whether you’re a successful reader or not in first grade.
And if you don’t get it by the end of first grade, you’re in very deep trouble. If you miss the boat in first grade, that boat is so long gone that you will never catch up. Whereas if you can kind of get additional help at that critical moment so that you’re in first grade in good shape, at grade level or very near it, then your chances of success are much, much greater.
Smith: Help me out on the big argument: phonics versus whole language. You’ve got a tremendous emphasis on phonics. Success for All feels like a very phonics based system, but then there are other times later on when it doesn’t feel so phonics based. How important is the phonics part of Success for All?
Slavin: I think the phonics is absolutely essential to Success for All. I think that when we began in 1987, the world was absolutely on the other side. Whole language was the craze. And it would have been a lot easier for us to have just gone along with that. But we reviewed the literature. We did not start off, by the way, as reading people; we started off as school organization people and motivation people. And our first work had been in math so it wasn’t as though we’ve always done reading from day one.
So we had to be convinced going into this about what was the best curriculum for reading. We did a review of the literature back then and the literature was crystal clear that phonics was more effective. Study after study found that children who struggled in reading had to be taught a phonetic, systematic strategy for unlocking the reading code.
There are children who learn fine either way, but that’s not our problem. We don’t know of any group of children that’s harmed by phonics. But there’s a large group of children, I think, who’s harmed by the lack of phonics. And so we wanted to use the most effective strategies and we took a great deal of heat for many, many years for having adopted that approach.
Now the world has changed and everybody claims to do phonics and that’s, I think, that’s progress – at least to the degree that they’re really doing it. But it’s still important not only to do phonics, not only to use a phonetic strategy, but to do it in a systematic way – to constantly assess the results of the instruction and make sure that kids are succeeding at it rather than just hearing about it.
Smith: One of the things that we heard talking to teachers was that they thought the phonics system was too slow at first, that it took too long to unfold all the sounds that were necessary. You got some pushback and so you come up with FastTrack Phonics. Tell me the story of FastTrack Phonics.
Slavin: In addition to reading the literature, we also try to learn from our own schools. And the concerns that we heard from teachers were … whether children were getting the sounds early enough. If they learned the sounds as they were reading the books, they were kind of going step by step – learning sounds, reading books, learning sounds, reading books, learning sounds – and that was too slow. So our own schools told us that we needed to do something different.
So we made FastTrack Phonics as a means of providing sort of a parallel curriculum that would introduce the letter sounds and sound blending strategies very rapidly as the children were beginning to apply them in the books, but not holding them to the pace that the books held them to. And I think it’s been very well received and is really improving the outcomes that we get in the early grades.
Smith: So is FastTrack Phonics literally faster? They’re getting sounds and sound blending faster and then rolling them out into reading a little bit more slowly?
Slavin: They’re rolling them out into reading at the same pace that they always did, but the FastTrack Phonics is enabling us to frontload a lot of the phonic skills before they get to the books. So that we introduce all of the letter sounds and sound blending strategies and the diagraphs, which is the two-letter combinations and things like that. We’re introducing those very quickly. Then we go over them again as they begin to incorporate them in the books, rather than having the books be the first time they hear about them.
Smith: Talk about the function of second grade for a minute, what we see in a second grade classroom, what you look for in the second grade.
Slavin: Second grade is a very critical year also. In first grade, you have a fairly well-defined task. The kids have got to be able to decode. They’ve got to be fluent, which means they have to be able to read at a rapid pace in order to really get the comprehension. They do need to learn comprehension strategies from the very beginning and we emphasize comprehension strategies all the way from kindergarten through first grade.
But in second grade you’re beginning to make a transition to much more difficult kinds of material, a broader range of books that you want children to be able to read. And the emphasis on comprehension becomes much greater.
In second grade, we begin a process that’s then played out in many ways all the way through eighth grade, which puts a lot of emphasis on kids working in cooperative teams to help each other develop skills for comprehension. The kids will work on what we call treasure hunts, where the treasures they’re looking for are character setting, problem and problem/solution, and narratives. They start learning graphic organizers, which means using pictorial ways to represent what’s in a story or what’s in a history or biography.
It’s useful as a study strategy, as a way of organizing the information. Children begin trying to make predictions about what’s going to happen next in a story as a way to organize their thinking about the comprehension. All of these things are specific strategies that kids can use to comprehend difficult text, to figure out the meaning of words that they don’t know, to build vocabulary so that they can grow in their understanding of their reading and so on which is, again, a much more complex task in many ways than the just knowing what the word says that’s the emphasis in kindergarten and first grade.
Smith: When I walked into one of your schools, at one point, nearly every grade was working on the “main idea” [of the book or story they were reading.] What does this do? Having everybody in the school not only reading but the same point in reading, the same emphasis in reading at the same time on the same day?
Slavin: Well, they probably wouldn’t be that much in lock step. What you will see are things like “main idea” being used all the time in all grades, but at advancing levels of difficulty in sophistication as the children move along. But yes, there’s a lot of consistent focus on comprehension strategies that work, on things that are known to help kids get the meaning of what they’re reading that goes beyond knowing just what the words say. And so main idea, prediction, summarization, graphic organizers or pictures of what’s going on, knowing the story structure – what’s called the story grammar – all of those things have been very well established in research as being effective ways to learn to comprehend.
And yet if you go into most ordinary reading classes, you won’t see these things being emphasized. You’ll see groups of kids who are plodding through their textbook and just reading out loud and getting some feedback on the reading out loud without learning that there are tricks to comprehension, that there are strategies that you can use as a child that will help you get to the meaning of whatever it is that you’re studying.
Smith: And you’re scripting those strategies the same way you were scripting the phonics lessons in first grade?
Slavin: Exactly. We just don’t go for hit or miss. We don’t go for just doing our best and hoping for the best. We want to see teachers making creative use of these effective strategies every single day. So it’s not scripted in the sense that we’re telling teachers every single minute what they have to do, but we want to have them follow a general structure for lesson design where we know that children will be constantly exposed to these effective strategies. They’ll have many, many opportunities to practice them and they’ll be constantly assessed to know whether they’re getting them so that the teacher can know how to guide their own instruction to make sure that kids are succeeding.
Smith: And if you’re a kid who’s been exposed in second grade to the main idea, prediction, story grammar and so forth and you get it again in third grade and fourth grade and fifth grade an sixth grade, you get the idea?
Slavin: Well, the difference is that in second grade you’re applying these things to “Charlotte’s Web.” In sixth grade you’re applying them to perhaps to Shakespeare or to “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” or to a much, much more complicated text where the demands of doing those kinds of things are quite different. But nevertheless, the strategies that you’re going to use to unlock the meaning are going to be similar at each grade level.
Smith: You’ve heard it a zillion times more than we have, certainly right here in this school, but in other schools as well. When people are first exposed to Success for All, they say it’s rigid and highly scripted. Teachers say, “I don’t feel comfortable in it. I’m a veteran teacher and these folks are pretty rigid.” And when you guys came around to look, they said, “Oh my gosh, the police are coming.”
Slavin: Right. Well, yes, you’re right. We hear this concern about the scriptedness of Success for All all the time. It’s probably the number one criticism that we get. And I think over the years we’ve loosened up to some degree. But at the same time we’re not going too far because we know that to get teachers to make major change, they have to see reason. They have to see a way. They have to see it in detail.
It’s not enough to get teachers together and say, “What you really ought to do is use cooperative learning,” or, “You ought to get together and figure out a way to have kids make more predictions or to do summaries or graphic organizers.” Teachers are very practical folks. They work very hard. They care very deeply about children, but they need to see it. They need to be clear on what it is you’re talking about.
And so we’ve tried to write guides to the lessons that are very explicit as a way for teachers to understand what we mean. After they start to use them, pretty soon the teachers are willing to put the guide aside and just to go with their understanding of what the lesson is about and to make it their own, to then bring in the creativity and bring in ways to make it their own.
We saw one teacher who was teaching a unit on Sweden to first graders, and she happened to be of Swedish ancestry. And she personalized it to make it her own. She wasn’t following a specific script, but every element of the lesson was in that lesson. Every single step that’s in the teacher’s manual was in that lesson. She was just doing it in her own way and making it personalized to her. And I think that’s what we’re aiming for.
Smith: But you saying that you’ve backed off a bit, that you got some pushback and you’ve allowed more flexibility. And maybe you’ve redesigned the program, FastTrack Phonics being an example.
Slavin: We have redesigned the program in many ways to make it easier to use and to make it easier for the teacher to get off of the script and to use other ways to organize themselves to provide good quality lessons. But a big change that we’ve gone through is to get away from emphasizing the minutia of what’s posted on the walls, how many minutes on this activity versus this activity, all of those little procedures that we found teachers falling into even though we didn’t intend that to be the case.
We want to focus on the learning outcomes so we’ve changed to a much greater focus on what we call “goal-focused implementation” rather than “processing-oriented implementation” so that we’re looking constantly at kids. If it’s working with the kids, you’re doing it right. If it’s not working with the kids, you’re doing it wrong and we don’t care what’s on your walls or how many minutes you’re spending on the activities if the kids aren’t learning.
Smith: I’d like you to step back a moment from Success for All and talk a little bit about education reform in America. My sense is that particularly in the late ’80s and the early ’90s, the emphasis was very much on individual school reform that was being done school-by-school, and that there’s been an evolution from that. Just talk about that time period and that impulse. What caused the school-by-school approach? What promoted that and then where did you all fit into that?
Slavin: Well, actually in the late ’70s, early ’80s there was a lot of focus on district control – top down, everybody does the same thing. And individual schools have very little autonomy. Then there was a big reaction to that. So in the late ’80s, in the early ’90s, there was a movement toward what was called, “site-based management” in which each principal and group of teachers was supposed to help to create their own destiny and to determine what they thought was best for their children and they might choose things different from what another school down the block might do.
That, then, ran into all the problems of trying to coordinate many different things. In Memphis, there was a wonderful superintendent who was very much behind the site-based management idea, but by the time she left she had 19 different reform models running in Memphis. And it just couldn’t be managed. And so those kinds of approaches mostly went by the wayside. And then we went back to, right now, more of a focus on top down, district consistency in district level reform.
Smith: How does the site-based school-by-school approach work for you at Success for All?
Slavin: It was very consistent with what we were trying to do. And site-based management has created the right environment for Success
for All to grow up.
One of the things that we have always required is that when schools take on Success for All that they have a vote by secret ballot of at least 75% of their staff. Actually, usually we require 80% of the staff to vote for the program. So it can’t be imposed by a principal. It can’t be imposed by a district mandate. Because we know that this is a very substantial change. We want the individual teachers and principals to be fully bought into that change and to feel as though they made a choice; that this was not something they were forced to do.
That’s been hard to maintain in recent years because of this movement to district level reform. We do have some districts around the country that have taken on Success for All as a district level reform, but that’s not typical. Usually what’s happening is that district level reform has come to mean the lowest common denominator: “We’re all using this book; everybody just use it and shut up about it,” rather than something as complex and multi-faceted as Success for All. So we’ve had to adapt and have made a number of changes to work at the district level, but I think it’s harder to do in the environment of district level change than it was when site-based management was more common.
Smith: Let me ask you about other school reform models. You said yours wasn’t the only one. There are others that are out there when you’re talking about replication. Here’s a completely different approach, the approach of James Comer, psychiatrist at Yale. Are you familiar with the Comer approach and what do you make of that as an educational researcher?
Slavin: I have enormous respect for the Comer program and, in some ways, I see Comer as a real hero and risk taker, an innovator in this whole field. Well, before we were doing anything with Success for All, he was out trying to do whole school reform. It’s quite different from what we do, but consistent in the idea that the school is going to organize all of its resources and energies around trying to make sure that every child is going to succeed.
His approach doesn’t have the specific curriculum materials that we have, doesn’t have the very well-specified activities classroom-by-classroom. It puts much more of an emphasis on building strong links with the community and with families and with building up children’s self-esteem.
We’ve incorporated many aspects of the Comer approach and we did this quite explicitly when we first designed Success for All. Many of the aspects of the family support, community involvement, organizational structure in Success for All owe a great deal to the Comer approach. But again, we felt as though it was necessary to do a lot more with the details of the curriculum and instruction than the Comer Process has done.
Smith: There was a kind of “let a thousand flowers bloom” quality to the late ’80s and early ’90s in which Success for All and the Comer Process were just a part. You saw all kinds of different ideas around you, didn’t you?
Slavin: Right. There were many different programs that arose around that time. A key part of that history was that in 1991, led by David Kearns, the former CEO of Xerox, a bunch of business folks organized to provide a large amount of money to help develop a variety of networks of school reformers that became what was called “The New American Schools Development Corporation”. It provided a lot of funding and seed capital for a variety of programs to get going.
They ultimately ended up with seven programs that still, to this day, are the largest school reform programs in existence. Some other ones have also come along that had their origins around that same time, late ’80s, early ’90s, that each in its own way presents a coherent challenge to common practice. And they’re quite different from each other, the different models.
But the fact that there are different models, each of which is tied into a network of like-minded practitioners, each of which has its own standards of excellence that it tries to enforce at its schools, I think, is a real asset to the practice of education.
Smith: When you look across these models, you certainly see a lot of differences, but what I’m wondering is when you look across these models, do you see some common elements?
Slavin: I think you do see many common elements among the models. One is an emphasis on school organization, on school as the unit of change; and on providing a great deal of professional development for teachers within the school that uses not just “stand up and talk at the teachers” kinds of methods, but strategies of coaching where people inside the school are able to follow up on initial workshops, and watch what teachers do, and give them feedback, and give teachers opportunities to meet together and discuss common ideas and practices. And really to see the change process as being something that’s worth investing in and sticking at over a long period of time. I think those are absolutely common features of all of these models – an emphasis on strong professional development and leadership.
Another thing that’s important across all the models is outreach to parents and to communities. I think they all have some ways of trying to engage parents to deal with issues like attendance or motivation or children’s behavior in collaboration with parents and community members.
Smith: Let me just ask you – high expectations for all kids, use of resources, allocation of resources, any common elements there?
Slavin: Yes. I think that all of the programs have very high expectations for children and express those in a variety of ways. And they also have standards. They have standards of practice for teachers. They have standards of performance for children, some to a greater and some to a lesser degree. So even if they don’t provide the specific curriculum materials, as we do, most of the programs provide very specific kinds of standards that are related to widely-accepted national or state standards in ways of assessing children’s progress toward those standards.
Another thing is just the fact of having a commonality of purpose, of giving teachers a sense of what they’re trying to do everyday; that there’s a common mission for the school that’s not just a mission statement stuck on the wall somewhere that nobody pays attention to, but a genuine sense of what we’re trying to achieve as school. What makes us distinctive? What do we want? What’s our vision of what children should be like and what children should receive? And what’s our vision of what a school should look like?
Smith: The other thing that strikes me is cost. When I listen to you talk about your program, you’re talking about very detailed description and instruction. You’re talking about quite small classes. You’re talking about tutoring. You’re talking about professional development and constant training and reworking. You’re talking about your staff following up. All those elements involve cost.
When you said you were angry and passionate and caring about the inner city kids, you’re talking about resources. You’re talking about commitment. I mean none of what you’re talking about is going to work unless people are willing to put both effort and money into reaching kids that have been tough to reach in the past.
Slavin: That’s true. Part of our thinking
in Success for All from the very beginning was to demonstrate what
could be done if you were willing to spend what was needed to ensure all children
to succeed. That means that our original conception was that this was going to
cost more than what schools ordinarily spend, but not vastly more, because we knew
that would be unrealistic.
The cost of the program, the cost that schools pay for it is about a $150 per
child per year. Then it declines in the first year to less than that. In America
we’re spending $6,000, $7,000, $8,000 per child per year for all of education.
To add $150 per child seems trivial in that context, and yet it’s very difficult
for people to come up with $150 dollars a child. So I’m not belittling the cost,
but I’m saying that we could, for a fairly modest percentage, increase what we
provide to schools now and get much more effective schools than the ones we have.
But we have to use that increase for programs that have good, strong evidence of
effectiveness, or else people will say, “We’re all putting more money down a rat
hole. We’ve already been there and it didn’t do anything for us.”
Smith: So you’re saying it’s a question of political will and intelligent educational targeting.
Slavin: I think that’s exactly right. My guess is that even this school, which has a very high ratio of tutors compared to our usual schools, is spending no more than other schools of similar size and similar levels of poverty. What they’re doing is they’ve made some very hard choices to focus on the quality of instruction, the quality of professional development, the quality of tutoring, and the amount of tutoring that their children receive. And I think the results speak for themselves.
Smith: Going back to the question about common elements among those programs, is it common among those programs that you’re going to have to invest more money, better teachers, more resources and the kids who need the most help?
Slavin: I think it’s not common to have tutoring or other specific services for individual children who are having difficulty. I think only one of the other programs has that as an explicit element of their model. But I do think that the larger concept of investing in teachers in professional development and giving them strategies that can help with kids who are having difficulties is common across the different models.
Smith: Let me ask about two other specific models. High Schools that Work comes out of the Southern Regional Education Board; you know the folks there. Where does that fit into this historical evolution that you’ve been talking about here, the development of models?
Slavin: I think High Schools that Work started before the “New American Schools” and on a parallel track. It was not something that came about in the same way. It’s got a very strong emphasis on trying to incorporate, not vocational education but career-oriented instruction in high schools to have kids be more connected to a future.
Rather than whole school reform, it really began working with subgroups of kids within schools rather than with entire schools. I think maybe for that reason it wasn’t seen as one of the comprehensive school reform models in the same way as others were.
But it’s become one of the most widespread and, I think, successful of the high school reform models and is now seen as part of the pack, if you will, of well-thought through, capable networks of school reform – like-minded people that are really making a difference with a lot of high school kids.
Smith: You’re talking about multiple ways of learning. And you used the term “pathways.” I wonder if you see parallels between your effort to find pathways and finding pathways for older kids.
Slavin: Absolutely. I think that they have a different set of problems in senior high school, where you now have young adolescents who are full of passion for something. But is that passion going to be devoted to delinquency in drugs and sex and so on, or is it going to be devoted to preparing themselves for a future that they can only dimly perceive?
I think if we were doing senior high school reform, we would do things a lot like what High Schools that Work does – to deal with those motivational issues. And then we would provide a lot more specific kinds of support so that once you’ve got them highly motivated and thinking about careers and thinking about developing themselves as successful people in our society, that you could also help them learn to read and to do science and to do history and geography and so on which, I think, is the other criterion that you have to have in reform in any level of schooling.
Smith: Let me ask you lastly about KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Program – the middle school reform model developed in Houston and the Bronx by a couple of former Teach for America guys who I presume you know about – David Levin and Mike Feinberg. One of the things that struck me as I was sitting in the class this morning listening to the drill on the phonics cards, was listening to a 5th grade math teacher at KIPP doing something very similar with a multiplication tables.
There were pneumonic devices being used to get things across and then also the effort to convert that rote knowledge into problem-solving in this same way you’re talking about, moving from decoding words into beginning to get fluency and historic comprehension. What do you make of that system if you’re familiar with it? And do you see any parallels?
Slavin: I think that philosophically KIPP has a great deal in common with Success for All – very high expectations for children, very high expectations for staff, a real revolutionary belief in the capability of children, and a sense of real relentlessness and drive on the part of the organizers of the network, and of the people who participate in it to go into the most difficult urban neighborhoods in our country and make a substantial difference. So I’m very glad to have KIPP on the scene as another model.
There are many differences from what we do but certainly, the commonality of purpose is very strong. And as far as the use of all of these pneumonic devices, I mean, that’s how people learn things. That’s how they remember things is by little jingles. I mean, you probably learned this 40 years ago – “You wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with…” You remember the outcome of this, right? Because it stuck in your mind. Because you heard it as a stupid little jingle and yet why can’t we use similar strategies for kids to learn phonics and to learn the content of school, rather than just for advertisements on television?
Smith: You mentioned that standards were one of the things that were common to these networks of school reform and they had their different standards of excellence and performance. But one thing that was common among them was that you had standards.
Now, standards-based education has become a rallying cry, a slogan, a mantra. I just want to ask you in terms of the reform effort you’ve been engaged in, what has been the impact of No Child Left Behind, the national effort to codify and impose standards?
Slavin: I think it’s too soon to say whether No Child Left Behind is going to be beneficial. It’s got some wonderful ideas in it and probably some terrible ideas in it. And we don’t know whether the wonderful ideas will prevail or not.
Smith: Can you identify what’s wonderful and what’s terrible about it?
Slavin: I think probably the most important positive idea is the one that’s being completely ignored in practice so far, which is the importance of having a strong research base for practice. That’s mentioned more than 100 times in No Child Left Behind and yet it’s been virtually completely ignored in practice.
Smith: You mean schools and states are using strategies that are not research-based or haven’t been proven?
Slavin: That’s correct. They’re using things that are kind of, sort of, roughly, a little bit based on research. They’re using somewhat more phonics, for example, than they used to. But basically people are using No Child Left Behind – particularly Reading First funding, which is one element of No Child Left Behind – to adopt traditional basal textbooks which, you know, is pushing the envelope of anything you could possibly imagine for using research-based strategies. So I think that there’s enormous potential in that language. But so far, No Child Left Behind has not focused on that aspect.
What it has focused on has been a test-based accountability. This is not exactly new. States have been doing test-based accountability for many years. No Child Left Behind makes some refinements in it. It now requires testing every year, which some states were already doing. It requires some more draconian punishments for schools that don’t show adequate progress. But many states have been doing that for many years. So the part that most people think of as being important about No Child Left Behind, the accountability parts, are not that different from what most states have had in recent years.
Some of the concepts – the provision of after-school programs for schools that are not succeeding – is a good thing. I think that that’s good to have after-school programs, but it’s under-funded for what it’s trying to do. And, therefore, a lot of these after-school programs have large numbers of kids getting not that many hours of instruction. I don’t know if it’s going to be that beneficial and it sure would have been nice if somebody had done the research on effective after-school programs before mandating this after-school requirement all over America.
So there are many provisions of No Child Left Behind. Again, I’m not even talking about all of them but I think that by and large I’m not expecting dramatic change on that basis alone. But it does create the possibility for some very positive changes if it changes course and begins to genuinely emphasize programs and practices that really have strong evidence of effectiveness.
Smith: And has it had an impact on Success for All and your research, and the way schools are applying your program?
Slavin: It’s had a very negative impact on Success for All. I’m not sure if it was intended by anybody, but the drive toward the use of traditional basal textbooks has pushed out not only Success for All, but other comprehensive reform models that are in deep trouble for this reason.
Smith: And you’re talking about pushing out research-based, more-proven models in favor of less-proven models.
Smith: So you’re saying the law’s having the opposite effect of what it says it’s intended to do.
Slavin: Well, to be fair, the law doesn’t say you have to use programs that have been proven to be effective. What it says is, “You have to use programs that are based on scientifically-based evidence.” The law’s only saying that you have to use programs that are consistent with research, not that have themselves been evaluated.
For a variety of reasons, the way that that’s been interpreted across the nation has been to drive out innovative programs and to substitute traditional basal textbooks that have no evidence of effectiveness and that are not even, in many cases, designed in particular to incorporate scientific principles of practice. But if you make that principle squishy enough as it is, then you can justify almost anything that you would like to use as being based on scientifically-based evidence.
Smith: When you put such emphasis on the importance of teaching kids to read in first grade, what’s at stake for those kids?
Slavin: Once you fail in first grade, the chances are you’re going to fail in second grade. The chances are you’re going to fail in third grade and beyond. And what will happen over a period of time is that you may be held back for a year. You may be put in the low-reading group. Any number of bad things will happen to you. And in the accumulation of those bad things, what you’ll do is a normal human response, which is you’ll say, “This is not important. I don’t like this. I’ll find any way I can to get out of this.” And you end up with a child who hates school, who looks for other outlets for their energies other than study or other than trying to succeed in school. And you end up very frequently then with children who have behavior problems, who have terrible motivation and attitude problems that interfere with their success later on as a student and then ultimately as an adult.
Now imagine that all of that could have been changed in first grade. I would maintain to you that all of it could have been changed in first grade had that same child who experiences this negative spiral of failure instead succeeded in first grade reading. The chances are very good that they would have had just the opposite ascending spiral of success building on success.
That’s what we’re trying to achieve and that’s why first grade is so critical. You never get a chance to do that again right and you must have children in kindergarten and first grade coming to the end of that and saying, “Hey, I can do this. I can read. I can accomplish what the school expects me to accomplish.”
Smith: Because the rest of the education is really riding on that.
Slavin: Absolutely. That’s what I’m saying. The rest of their education is riding on that and the rest of their lives are riding on their education, their success in the education system. There’s no question about that. So you’re starting in process. You’re starting a train of events that lead to successful outcomes for adults ultimately versus unsuccessful outcomes for adults, starting at that critical moment.
Smith: Let’s talk about the kids with English language problems coming into the school, maybe not even in first grade, arriving in third grade, arriving in fifth grade, speaking Russian, Ukrainian, Spanish, Vietnamese. What does Success for All offer kids who come with a language handicap?
Slavin: Success for All has had a very strong emphasis on English language learners since very early in its history because that’s a very large proportion of the children who are at risk in our society. What we try to do is several things.
First, we have to identify what the problem is. You have children who might come in at third grade speaking a language other than English, but they’re very fluent readers of their home language. Or you may others who come in at third grade age and they’ve never been to school a single day. You have to identify what the situation is to provide the appropriate action. The program assesses those children, places them according to their reading level.
Perhaps the most important thing for English language learners, though, is the cooperative learning. A lot of kids learn English very, very quickly on the playground. Kids are sponges for language. So getting kids to be able to speak English well enough to use it on the playground is not the big problem. The big problem is getting kids to use the language of the school, to use the language of science, of math, of social studies, of reading. And kids need to learn that language the same way.
They learn the playground language by using it. If you have kids passively sitting and listening to a teacher, they will never gain the vocabulary, or the facility with that vocabulary, that you would want children to have. They have to use it. And yet they’re often very shy and very unwilling to use English because they may be laughed at in class.
So what we do is try to organize opportunities for them to work in pairs or to work in small groups to discuss among themselves before they discuss with the teacher so that they can have many, many opportunities to use English in a safe environment rather than feeling as though they they’re going to be laughed at or made fun of when they use the English that they do have.
Smith: Is there a single most essential element to Success for All?
Slavin: I’d like to say that the single most important element is that there is no single most important element. You’ve got to get all of these things right. We both flew here on an airplane. Would you say, “What’s the single most important element of that airplane?” All of it. If somebody forgot to put the wings on or forgot to get the engine right, all of those things have to be working together if you’re going to have it be successful. I think the same is true of Success for All – it’s relentless attention to detail in every aspect of curriculum, instruction, professional development, school organization and so on.