Feature

Prepackaged School Reform

Do highly scripted curricular programs, such as Success for All, stymie teacher initiative and poison morale? by JAY MATHEWS


At the Edison-Friendship Public Charter School in southeast Washington, D.C., 2nd-grade teacher Katrinka Agurs had a kitchen timer in her hand to make certain her students were keeping up the pace.

"You need to get started," she told one child dawdling on a writing exercise. "Time is running out." A few minutes later she said, "You have four seconds."

Much of the time in her 90-minute morning class was spent reading aloud in unison to reinforce the sound of words. "Point, ready, read!" she said. All 14 children began to read a story out loud. Then they paired up for quick critiques of each other's reading, while Agurs kept one eye on the clock.

This was teaching by the book--a heavily scripted method called Success for All--and it was working. Reading scores were up significantly at Edison-Friendship by the end of the year.

However, as such methods spread, educators are disagreeing over whether forcing teachers to follow such a tightly written schedule is a proper use of their talents. Success for All and another scripted method called Direct Instruction have received accolades from educators and a remarkable endorsement from five leading educational organizations. But that has not stopped critics from complaining about their effect on teacher morale and initiative.

Divergent Views
In the October 1999 issue of Phi Delta Kappan, University of Chicago researchers Herbert J. Walberg and Rebecca C. Greenberg said Success for All was one of several programs that have secured federal funds on the strength of self-serving research done by the program developers or close colleagues. It cited independent research that had been critical of Success for All results in Baltimore and suggested the program's positive results might be the result of biased testing, unusually committed teachers or a narrow focus on reading.

The Success for All approach "really dishonors the professional craft of the teacher," says Linda M. McNeil, co-director of the Rice University Center for Education in Houston, where many schools are using the program. Educators, she adds, "do not find in this program, or any other package, the depth and breadth and the variety of reading styles they need to get all their kids to read and to find reading purposeful and fun."

James C. Enochs, superintendent of the 32,000-student Modesto, Calif., city school, has a different view.

"We have a lot of very young, inexperienced teachers," he says. "They obviously need a very highly prescriptive way of teaching because there has been a major failure in teaching reading instruction at our state colleges and universities." He says his district has had good results under both Direct Instruction and Success for All.

Although, he acknowledges, not all schools in his district have improved under the programs, one early three-year study showed better reading scores and better writing directly attributable to Success for All. Several dozen elementary schools run by the for-profit educational company Edison Schools Inc. use Success for All, and most have reported achievement gains.

Success for All was invented by a husband-and-wife team of Baltimore-based psychologists, Robert E. Slavin and Nancy A. Madden. Slavin, co-director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, said when teachers complain that Success for All stifles their creativity, there are two possible interpretations: "One, that they really do have terrific ideas and really could do it better than our program," he says, "or two, 'I'm lazy, I'm afraid, I've always done things this way.'"

Slavin and Madden met at Reed College, a small school in Oregon catering to independent thinkers. They shared their ideas about how to change society through better schools.

Today the program they began to conceive as idealistic teen-agers has spread to 1,500 schools. It has grown into a $45 million-a-year non-profit business with 265 employees.

Direct Instruction, which like Success for All gives teachers specific instructions, is being used in 150 schools and several thousand other individual classrooms. It was developed by Siegfried Engelmann at the University of Illinois in the late 1960s and then at the University of Oregon. The curriculum materials are published by Science Research Associates, a division of McGraw-Hill. The initial focus on reading and mathematics has expanded to lesson plans in science, social science and handwriting. Like Success for All, the program has been particularly successful in low-performing schools in high-poverty areas.

A Seal of Approval
The distaste that many professional educators feel for Success For All and Direct Instruction might be an insurmountable handicap if this were not an age in which schools are forced to focus on academic results. Both programs have research studies showing their benefits and each just acquired the educational equivalent of a Most Valuable Player award.

"An Educators' Guide to Schoolwide Reform," a nearly 300-page report on 24 schoolwide reform models analyzed by the Washington-based American Institutes for Research, has given both Success For All and Direct Instruction its highest rating. The report was sponsored by five educational heavyweights: AASA plus the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

The guide labels with a full-circle symbol those programs that show strong positive effects on student achievement. Promising effects get a half circle, marginal effects get a quarter circle, mixed or weak effects get an empty circle and programs that have no research backing them get a question mark.

Of the 24 programs rated, Success for All and Direct Instruction were the only two elementary school programs awarded a full circle for positive effect on student achievement. (The third full-circle winner was High Schools That Work, a program developed by the Southern Regional Education Board.) Success for All also received a full circle for the developer support it provides schools, while Direct Instruction, now marketed by several contractors, received a half-circle for developer support.

The educators' guidebook liked the research backing Direct Instruction's results because "there are many studies with similar findings, which raises confidence in the results. Further, of the 14 studies that used rigorous methodologies, five were conducted by independent researchers." Its only complaint was that the research was focused mostly on the reading and math results and that most of the studies were over 10 years old.

The report said the research on Success for All included "16 empirical studies, detailing information from about two dozen different sites." It said the studies of the program not only "show statistically and educationally significant improvement in student scores, but it does so consistently across the studies reviewed."

The Experience Factor
District leaders have widely varying reactions to these prescriptive models, often depending on the level of reading achievement at their local schools, the quality of teaching staff and availability of other research-based approaches.

Bill Montford, superintendent in Leon County, Fla., says he applauds efforts to fix low-performing schools, noting, "It's a quick way to failure not to change." Still, he prefers the homegrown methods his professional staff has developed in cooperation with two major universities in the Tallahassee area.

Michael Riley, superintendent in Bellevue, Wash., says he has seen Success for All work in schools in Baltimore and has a principal who just installed the program at Stevenson Elementary School in Bellevue. Successful methods that rely on detailed instructions to teachers are useful, Riley says, "if you want to make a difference with kids and you want to do it fast."

Assessment of the local teacher talent is important in deciding to use prescriptive models, he says. When he worked as a central-office administrator in Baltimore, Riley says, Success for All’s strong directions for teachers were attractive because "there was a sense that we were getting a lot of teachers who didn't have a strong foundation in teaching reading." Many teachers who welcomed the adoption of Success for All at Stevenson said it strengthened their skills. "Some said it was the best training they had ever gotten," he says.

Formula for Success
Success for All was conceived in 1986 when Kalman "Buzzy" Hettleman, a former Maryland state secretary of human resources, asked Slavin, Madden and other Johns Hopkins researchers what they would do if they had the freedom to use all they had learned to remake an inner-city school. They hashed out a few ideas and then discovered to their astonishment that Hettleman was not just philosophizing. He arranged for them to set up their program at Abbottston Elementary School in Baltimore. In September 1987, Success for All was born.

Slavin, Madden and the rest of the team wanted to instill reading skills early in each child's school life without forcing teachers beyond their capabilities or spending too much money. It was assembly-line school reform, with scripted lessons, cheaply printed black-and-white reading materials and strict rules for 90 minutes of lessons each day supplemented by 20-minute daily tutoring sessions for students who needed extra help.

Specialist instructors at the school who did not usually have their own classrooms, like art and physical education teachers, also taught the 90-minute reading groups, organized by level of achievement, so that the average class size could be kept at about 15 students. Every eight weeks students were tested and moved to higher or lower groups as needed. Family support teams addressed problems at home.

Success for All almost died at age three when the Baltimore superintendent who had supported the program was forced out of office. But by then the Slavin-Madden team could show their children were moving ahead of those in schools without the program--by as much as a full grade in some cases. Fewer students were being held back and fewer were being sent to special education classes.

Schoolwide Endorsement
Education reform today resembles the early automobile industry. Dozens of models have been developed in various parts of the country, each with its own approach and circle of devotees. But developers of both Success for All and Direct Instruction say that a school, unlike a car, will not run if the operators don't like the vehicle.

Direct Instruction recommends that teachers vote to adopt the program and remove any programs that conflict with it. Success for All has gone one step further and requires a vote. At least 80 percent of a school's professional staff must approve Success for All in a secret ballot before it may be implemented.

That remarkable facet of the program has set the stage for dramatic, and by all appearances, instructive debates in hundreds of schools over the nature of change in education. Only about 10 percent of schools that voted on Success for All have turned it down, Madden says. But she also estimated that the number of schools that dropped the idea before voting on the program was likely larger than the number that eventually accepted it.

Last year at Mount Vernon Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., Principal Gayle Smith tried to start a Success for All program. To her, it appeared to be the most effective program ever devised to turn disadvantaged children into good readers. Her school, full of children from families that did not speak English at home, had the lowest reading scores in the city school district of 11,000 students. She thought a proven national model would help, but she was not certain her staff would let her use it.

For several months, through the holidays and into 1999, she and her administrators and teachers wrestled with the issue of raising standards with pretested methods.

Ken King, elected representative of the school's kindergarten teachers, did his own research at Smith's urging. In sweat shirt and pants he spent several late nights scouring the Internet, learning all he could about Success for All and other popular models. Then he drove down two hours to Richmond with three other teachers to see how the program worked at the Overby-Sheppard Elementary School, which also had a large number of disadvantaged students.

King considered teaching an art, not a science, and it did not take him long to decide he did not like the scripted lessons. The reading books, he thought, were drab and unappealing. In some cases, he noticed children were not paying attention. The Overby-Sheppard principal described significant improvements in reading levels, but King was not convinced.

The four Mount Vernon teachers went to a hamburger restaurant in Richmond to share their thoughts before going home. Some of them liked the way Success for All unified the schools, so that every teacher and administrator knew what everyone else was doing. But they had seen other ideas from the outside come and go, and they were worried about putting in the effort to learn a new system only to drop it later.

Some schools in Baltimore and Miami, they knew, had not been successful using Success for All. Slavin and Madden argued that, in many of those cases the program had not been implemented correctly, but the failures still raised doubts.

Did the rigid schedule provide enough time to help struggling students? Although the 90-minute lessons were supplemented by 20 minutes of daily tutoring for the weakest students, the tutors might not always be as well trained as classroom teachers.

Toward the end of the lunch, King confessed what bothered him most. "I wouldn't be comfortable teaching against the clock," he said. "I wouldn't be comfortable not being able to teach one particular tangent, something that relates to a kid's personal experience and allows me to teach from that experience."

First-hand Inspection
Not far from Washington, D.C., Mount Vernon music teacher Kathleen Baker arrived with four other staffers at Hybla Valley Elementary School in Fairfax County, then the only school using Success for All in northern Virginia. Baker, 47, had spent many years as a performance artist and opera company manager before going into teaching.

She was eager to see the program in action in a school that had an even higher concentration of disadvantaged students than Mount Vernon. Plus, she knew the principal of Hybla Valley, who enthusiastically endorsed Success for All.

Always suspicious of guided tours, Baker pulled some teachers aside for a private word. They insisted their support for the program was genuine. They told her of one student who flunked 1st grade under the old system but now was above his grade level because of Success for All. One Hybla Valley teacher said she thought there would have been less incentive to move the boy to a higher level "if each teacher were left alone to do his or her own thing."

The teams reported back to colleagues at Mount Vernon Elementary. Some accounts were positive, some negative, some in between. At one school visited, a teacher had said she liked to stand near the door of her classroom so she could hear whether her class was on the same page as the class next door. Some Mount Vernon faculty considered this robo-teaching.

As the debate reached a climax, the views of Mount Vernon reading specialist Sigrid Ryberg, 48, became influential. Ryberg had trained many teachers in a program called Balanced Literacy. At a teachers meeting a month earlier, Ryberg said her method depended on children having a choice in what they read and there seemed little time for that in the Slavin-Madden program.

Some teachers questioned the research behind Success for All. Many of the studies had been done by researchers associated with the two founders because it was hard to persuade principals to welcome an independent team into their schools with the power to deride the ideas they and their staffs had committed themselves to. A 1993 report by an outside evaluator, University of Delaware researcher Richard L. Venezky, said Success for All "clearly succeeds at the earliest stage of reading instruction for the majority of the children involved." But in five Baltimore schools, he said, the gains fell behind national norms in later years, a result the Johns Hopkins researchers blamed on their chilled relations with the Baltimore school system.

In late January, Smith distributed the ballots at a faculty meeting. All voters marked whether they had talked to a Success for All staffer, read the program literature, attended a staff meeting on the subject or visited a Success for All school. Then they circled one of two sentences: "I would like our school to adopt Success for All" or "I am not interested in adopting Success for All."

Each ballot was folded, stapled and placed in an envelope addressed to Success for All. Three days later, Smith's telephone rang. "I am sorry," said the Success for All staffer on the line. "I am afraid you didn't get the votes." The final result was 55 percent against Success for All, 45 percent for it.

The Mount Vernon staff started over, creating their own program with many elements of Success for All and other effective reading programs. Other schools have done the same.

A Sturdy Crutch
In Caruthers, Calif., a rural community outside Fresno where 75 percent of the students are poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized lunches, Principal Diane Garrigus has a two-hour block of instruction time each morning where no interruptions are tolerated and class sizes are kept to fewer than 20 children. "Success for All is doing many of the same things we are doing," she says.

Her superintendent, Dwight M. Miller, has secured a $100,000 grant to conduct an after-school program, run by Voyager Expanded Learning, for 150 children who need extra work. Voyager also puts instructors on a tight schedule, but Miller encounters little resentment because the instructors are not teachers, but paraprofessionals who appreciate the guidance (see related story).

For regular teachers, Miller says, a program like Success for All can be a crutch. "It takes off the pressure to be creative. It takes off the pressure to diagnose and respond to student needs," he says. But for paraprofessionals still training to be teachers, the scripted program "raises their level of confidence and self-esteem," Miller adds.

It helps his after-school teaching budget stretch further, he says, "and in the process they learn a lot more about what they have to do to raise kids up to a new level."

Jay Mathews is an education writer with The Washington Post. E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com