Success for All makes a comeback

Success for All, a scripted reading program which fell out of favor in the Bush administration, is back in the money, reports the Washington Post.

IN GRASONVILLE, MD. With fingers and pencils, Destiny Wallace-Jenkins and Aiden Priest took turns prompting each other to pronounce what they saw on the page. K-i-n-g – king. S-l-a-m – slam.

“Don’t cover it up, Aiden. Let her see it,” teacher Allison Torrence said one December morning at the elementary school here. “Destiny, you get ready and point for Aiden. Okay. Put it together.”

Letters were becoming sounds, sounds were becoming words and these first-graders on the Eastern Shore were becoming readers through a program that has won a major grant from one of President Obama’s signature education initiatives. The money will help Success for All, as the program is known, expand across the country.

Success for All groups students by reading skills, letting them move to the next level as soon as they’re ready. Teachers follow a script. All possible teachers in the building, including administrators, special-ed, P.E and music teachers, handle a 90-minute literacy block. That keeps class sizes small.

Detailed descriptions of daily objectives were posted outside the rooms. Example: “Use elements of narrative text to facilitate understanding. . . . Identify and explain character traits and actions.”

Beginners, including Destiny and Aiden, paired off to help each other on the teacher’s cue. They spent half an hour on phonics and then shifted to lessons geared to stories, story telling, retelling, comprehension and thematic writing.

Teacher Debbie Sparks guided more advanced students – all fifth-graders – through analysis of a nonfiction text on dinosaurs. Students formed groups of four for “team talk” to discuss scientific theories on why the dinosaurs died out. Then they gave their findings to the class – another of many examples of the emphasis on oral language development – and were awarded points for the quality of their presentations.

Some teachers dislike the regimentation, but less-experienced teachers often like the structure.  Teachers told the Post that SFA “enables them to work directly with students for long stretches of time. That would not necessarily be the case if teachers were juggling small groups of varying ability within one classroom.”

Success for All and Direct Instruction have proven record of success in teaching reading, notes Jay Mathews on Class Struggle.  Why not go with what works, even if it’s not new and cool?

Over the past twenty years, the only reading programs I have seen that have consistently proved to be effective are Success For All and Direct Instruction, the work of two University of Oregon pioneers, Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley C. Becker, who have also been hurt by the educational practice of discarding programs that aren’t considered cool any more.

In my San Jose Mercury News days, I observed a Success for All school in San Jose that credited the program with identifying fourth- and fifth-graders who’d never mastered first- and second-grade reading skills.  Placing students in classes at their own level let them catch up — and reduced discipline problems dramatically. Kids no longer needed to keep the class disrupted so nobody would notice their inability to read, teachers said.  Other SFA schools in San Jose also reported fewer discipline problems. SFA’s structure and sense of purpose carried over for the whole day, principals told me. Teacher absenteeism fell significantly as well.

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  1. John Thacker says:

    “a scripted reading program which fell out of favor in the Bush administration,”

    True, but also misleading (and misleading in the WaPo article), as partially seen by the fact that in the article it’s Bush Administration officials praising SFA. Indeed, Reading First was itself criticized for being too pro-Direct Instruction and other scripted programs, and against whole language programs. SFA was definitely considered an acceptable evidence-based program for Reading First grants, unlike whole language programs like Reading Recovery.

    A large part of the reason that scripted programs like SFA “fell out of favor during the Bush Administration” is that the Democrats in Congress decided that anything that the Bush Administration did had to be evil and for the wrong reasons, and proceeded to say that the Bush Administration was just being biased towards scripted programs (especially certain commercial ones). After 2006, funding for Reading First was massively slashed, and funds shifted towards non-scripted programs.

    This happened “during the Bush Administration,” and it’s true that now that Bush is gone Democrats are free to like scripted programs again (now that the Obama Administration is pushing them), but the phrasing is still misleading.

  2. A principal at a San Jose elementary school took me on a tour of her Success For All program at her school site and after three hours, I was sold.

    I thought it was brilliant. The best reading program imaginable.

    But then a year passed, and then another, and then another, and the reading test scores didn’t show any real gains.

    I thought it was a great program, not good, but great. But if the reading test scores didn’t rise, then something is wrong somewhere.

    The proof is in the pudding. And this pudding didn’t have any.