The Challenge: An achievement gap that is more pronounced in reading than in any other discipline, with barely a third of American fourth graders reading at grade level last year.
A Solution: Success for All is a school improvement program with a heavy focus on reading. At the Wells Academy in Steubenville, Ohio, 100% of students have scored proficient or above on Ohio state reading tests since 2005 using the Success for All program.
(Source: National Center for Education Statistics)
Funders of this program include the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which is also a sponsor of the 2012 Education Nation summit.
STEUBENVILLE, OHIO – School was just beginning at the end of August, but the students at Wells Academy in Steubenville, Ohio, were already hard at work.
Teacher Heather Davis led her first-graders through "fast-track phonics" — an animated program projected on a screen at the front of the class to help kids associate sounds with letters. The program came from a curriculum called Success for All, which is used in all of Steubenville's elementary schools. Second-graders in Amber D'Aurora's class used Success for All when they worked on understanding the meaning of new vocabulary words. Dawn Takach's third-graders were also using Success for All when they eagerly discussed stories they were reading.
That intense focus on learning is the major reason why Wells scored at the top of all Ohio elementary schools in the most recent state tests — significant achievement in a school where 58 percent of the students are considered “economically disadvantaged.”
But that's not the statistic that Wells principal Joseph Nocera likes to cite. The state test, he says, is just a "snapshot" of how his students performed on one day. Nocera, a 37-year veteran of the Steubenville schools, is much prouder of the fact that just about all of his students read at or above grade level, which puts them on par with much wealthier schools.
He starts each morning with a question blasting over the loudspeaker.
"Why are we here today?"
The answer echoes through the school's corridors as students yell out, "I am here to learn."
It wasn't always this way at Wells, which shares a building with Steubenville High School on the north side of the city's fading downtown. For generations, steel mills brought prosperity to Steubenville, nestled on the Ohio River near the West Virginia border. But the mills started shutting down in the 1980s.
With jobs gone, the population dropped. Many of the residents who remain are struggling, Nocera says. "You still have a strong work ethic here even though people may be underemployed," he says. "They pass that work ethic on to their children."
Despite the hard times, the city retains a small-town feel, says Takach, the third-grade teacher. She has lived in Steubenville all her life and went to nearby Franciscan University before starting her teaching career 13 years ago. "I never moved away," she says.
But it took more than a strong sense of community and a dedicated staff to put Wells at the top of the class.
Around the time Takach was graduating from Franciscan, Steubenville district officials decided to revamp their curriculum. At Wells, nearly a quarter of fourth-graders were reading below grade level in 1999.
Steubenville looked for a program based on research that worked well for students from low-income backgrounds.
The winner was Success for All, developed by two educators at Johns Hopkins University, Robert Slavin and Nancy Madden.
Success for All requires that at least 75 percent of teachers in a school vote to adopt the program. "We want to be really sure that the teachers know they have chosen this," says Slavin, "that this is not something that their administration has forced on them."
In Steubenville, the vote was unanimous. Melinda Young, who had just become principal at Wells, says teachers were impressed by Success for All's emphasis on continuing training. Too many so-called reforms dumped a curriculum on teachers without any support, she says.
Success for All promised to come to Steubenville at least twice a year and make sure that teachers understood the material, says Young, who is now Steubenville's director of programs.
Success for All started in a single school in Baltimore in 1987. When Steubenville adopted the reading program in 2000, it was already in place in dozens of schools around the country and Slavin and Madden had years of research behind them to help fine-tune the curriculum, a process that continues to this day. Slavin says more than two million students have now been through the Success for All program.
Before Success for All, each teacher at Wells was in charge of his or her classroom curriculum and the quality was inconsistent. That changed dramatically with Success for All, which is highly scripted. Teachers get manuals outlining the material they should cover every day along with specially created materials — like the animated fast-track phonics, which uses cartoon characters to capture kids' interest. The curriculum is crafted so that each year builds on the previous year's knowledge. Success for All's reading program worked so well that the Steubenville school district adopted its math program the following year.
Since then, reading and math test scores at Wells and the district's other elementary schools have been steadily rising. (Those are the only subjects directly taught using Success for All.)
Success for All has its critics who say that the curriculum is too scripted and doesn't allow teachers to add their own touches. Takach disagrees. "You can add your own stuff into it," she says. "You do what works for your classroom."
Takach says Success for All frees her from having to spend hours developing lesson plans and allows her to concentrate on giving each child what he or she needs. Because all teachers in the school use the same curriculum, she and her colleagues can help each other. "We're all on the same page," she says.
Cooperative learning, which emphasizes students working in teams, is another major component of Success for All.
During the daily 90-minute reading period, for example, students at Wells sit in groups of four as they read, write and help each other answer questions. Nocera thinks this develops their ability to work collaboratively — a major skill in the modern workplace.
The curriculum also involves parents, who have to sign off on their children's homework, among other tasks. "Parents need to be on your side," says Slavin. "It makes it much easier for the school. But even if parents aren't terribly involved, that doesn't relieve the school of its responsibility. One way or another, that kid's got to succeed."
Success for All's biggest asset is decades of research, other educators say. "There are so many things out there that are these silver bullets not based on any evidence," says Elaine Simon,
an education researcher who is co-director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. "Compared to those, this is like a Mercedes-Benz."
In Steubenville, the transition to such a structured curriculum was difficult at first. Even though all the teachers voted for it, some were still skeptical that it would work. But more than a decade later, just about everyone is a believer. Earlier this year, Ohio Gov. John Kasich decided to deliver his annual State of the State address at Wells in honor of the school's high scores. At Wells, he told the audience, "Nothing stands in the way of kids learning."
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Robert Slavin, Co-Founder and Chairman of the Board, Success For All
Dr. Robert Slavin is Chairman and co-founder of Success for All. He is also Director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University and part-time professor at the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York (England.) Success for All was developed after he and his wife, Nancy Madden, learned to draw on the influences children have on each other through cooperative learning.
In addition to being president, CEO, and co-founder of Success for All, Dr. Nancy Madden is a professor at the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University. She has written many books and articles, focusing on literacy and the education of disadvantaged students. Her current research includes social-emotional learning and technology in the classroom.
Joe Nocera has been working in the Steubenville schools for 37 years.
Tiffany Pierro has worked extensively with the Success for All curriculum in the Steubenville schools. This fall, she began working as a facilitator at Wells to make sure teachers understand how to use the curriculum.
Tricia Saccaccia has worked extensively with the Success for All curriculum in the Steubenville schools. This fall, she began working as a facilitator at Wells to make sure teachers understand how to use the curriculum.
Although the teachers in Steubenville voted unanimously to accept Success for All, there were still a few skeptics when the curriculum was first introduced. Some veteran teachers who had devised their own ways of teaching thought their methods were better. But, by the end of the first semester, Wells Academy Principal Joseph Nocera says even those skeptics were convinced that Success for All was superior. The reason: results. They could see that the students were learning.
Today, new teachers in Steubenville are hired knowing they will be teaching the Success for All curriculum. And, though they might already have experience teaching elsewhere, there is a learning curve. But Nocera says it helps that all the teachers are working on the same material.
Success for All has never wavered from its original mission, according to co-founder Robert Slavin. But some teaching methods have evolved with changing technology. Slavin says the organization is constantly looking for ways to improve, for instance by using new technology like the iPad. Success for All is a "whole school reform," a strategy that Slavin says generally fell out of favor in the Bush administration. But he says that the Obama administration has been much more receptive to this idea and Success for All has been awarded a $50 million Investing in Innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Education to expand its programs.
These interviews were conducted by MSNBC's Craig Melvin. They have been edited and condensed for clarity.
CM: What are you guys doing here that other schools aren't?
JN: The biggest thing is that we don't take that [60% poverty rate in the school district] as an excuse, because kids come from parents who many not be able to offer their kids a lot as far as money and financial backing. We've never taken that as an excuse. Kids walk through that door and it's our responsibility to educate that child to the best of our abilities.
CM: How involved are parents here?
JN: Parents are very involved with their kids and part of that is built right into the program. We have an expectation of parental help with the students every night in math and reading. There's a checkoff that the parents go through, the kids bring the checkoff back to school, saying they have in fact read with the parent, done their math homework with their parent. And we also have a lot of programs where the parents can volunteer. They can come in at any time.
CM: How do you make up for those parents who aren't as involved?
JN: We have a reading and math homework policy every night. If the child does not have someone to read with them at night, they can come in and read for us in the morning. If they can't get their homework done or get help with their homework at night, we have people here who will help them during the day. Again, the philosophy goes back to: It's not an excuse. We just won't accept that as an excuse for a kid not to learn.
CM: How much has the Success for All program played in the success here?
JN: It has played a substantial role. Twelve years ago when we started Success for All, we were looking for a reform program that would help raise our averages, that would help our kids that were struggling get to grade level by the time they were in third grade. That was our goal. And what we found was not only did we raise our averages, but we were able to challenge those kids who were doing quite well. And they just took off and are excelling and excelling every year. The main thing that I think SFA brings to us is the business of cooperative learning. Kids cooperating with each other, working in teams and partners, so that if a child is having difficulty with something, they can talk to their partners and teammates, and all come up with a consensus on what an answer should be. And once that process starts, where kids are talking to each other, the emphasis is on student talk and not on teacher talk. As soon as that started, the ball started rolling and the conversations that they have during class time are amazing.
CM: You take reading pretty seriously here.
JN: We spend 90 minutes every day reading. We call it "uninterrupted reading," and that's what we mean. No phone calls to the classrooms, no getting on the intercom interrupting classes, no special activities during that reading time. Before SFA we didn't spend nearly the amount of time that we're spending now. We had components of the reading program that were good. Other things were not. Now we have a consistent program district-wide.
CM: Describe the school before the Success for All program?
DC: Every teacher was in the room teaching. We had a wonderful group of teachers. But you were doing your own thing. We had a curriculum, we followed the state standards, but you were in your room teaching your own subject areas the best you knew how to teach. You did your own thing. We were not all on the same page as a school, as a district. Everybody was in their little room in isolation teaching their children the best they could. And now we are working as a community. We are all on the same page, all teachers speak the same language to the children, all children speak the same language. So when a child moves from one grade level to another or in a reading level from one teacher to another, they come with a foundation of skills they can build upon. And in the past you would have to re-learn those skills in that teacher's framework of teaching.
CM: What are the components of the program that make it successful here?
DC: We start in preschool with curiosity corner and the children are introduced to literature, they're introduced to sounds, and they have learning labs. In kindergarten they work on the Kinder Corner program and in the Kinder Corner program they completely learn phonics. They actually learn to read in first grade. It is very highly structured, we all follow the same framework, the same format - all Success for All schools do. But when you do that, you don't have to start from ground zero teaching the students every day. You start from where they are and they keep moving on.
CM: It sounds like it's highly structured.
DC: It is very highly structured. We all follow the same framework, the same format. All Success For All schools do. But when you do that, you don't have to start from ground zero teaching the students everyday. You start from where they are and they keep moving on.
CM: Talk to me about the Cooperative Learning Concept, this idea of kids talking to each other in class. They didn't allow that when I was in school.
DC: Right, and that was a very hard adjustment for teachers to adjust to because teachers were used to so much teacher talk, and they had to step back from the role of being the one in control 100 percent of the day and constantly talking and let the students have time to talk. Every child has a partner in the reading room, in their math room. The two partners are part of a team, and there are four people on a team, and everybody has a role on that team. Part of the objective is that the team has to make sure that everybody understands the concept or the objective. For instance, when we're doing reading, they have actual role cards. In reading and in math, partner 1 reads the question; partner 2 restates the question and makes sure everybody understands it and answers it; partner 3 will agree or disagree with what partner 2 said and can add data or prove the person wrong; partner 4 will summarize the group's answer. The children are making sure that everyone understands.
CM: And the teacher supervises this?
DC: The teacher's job is to monitor. The teachers have iPads and we put a data app on the iPad. They do what we call "Think and Connect." So, a lot of the program is you throw out a question, you don't call on someone immediately. You throw out a question and you give them think time. And it's quiet. Everybody has to think. When they're finished thinking you give them pair time. They talk to the partner. So everybody has a chance to talk and everybody has a chance to listen. Then you share. And the teacher chooses a student through random selection to share an answer, so everybody participates in every single question that gets thrown out there. The teachers, they love it.
The average price per student decreases over time and the exact amount depends on several factors, because the service Success For All provides is tailored to meet each school's specific needs. So, the cost can vary depending on student enrollment and standardized test scores, for example. Schools generally pay for Success for All with Title I funds, professional development funds, and other federal money.
For a 500-student, K-6 school, the average cost per student, per year is $104. Nationally, the average cost per student is approximately $50 per child per year, though costs for schools in the tenth or 15th year of the program are minimal. Larger schools generally have a lower average cost per student. Costs decrease over time as schools require less SFA coaching and professional development.
Last year, in its 13th year with Success For All, Wells paid $28.46 per student, for a total cost of $8,993.
Included in the Success For All fee is the following:
Additional costs to a school could include: