Page-turning progress

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 2, 2011

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. Prince George's County officials are strongly considering it for some of their low-performing schools.

Sponsored by a Baltimore foundation and used in about 1,000 schools, the program offers a case study not only in methods used to teach the most crucial academic skill but also in the shifting fashions of education reform.

Success for All trains teachers to follow a detailed playbook, with an emphasis on phonics at the start. The program stresses student collaboration, oral expression and frequent assessment to move children as fast as possible from one level of reading to another.

Students are assigned to teachers based on reading ability rather than age. When quarterly tests show the students have mastered a given level, they move on. Often they move to another room with another teacher.

That arrangement sets the program apart from the common practice of dividing students within a class into small groups of varying skill levels.

In another departure from the norm, Success for All lays out what educators call unusually explicit, step-by-step guidance for lessons. That means, for instance, that the alphabet chant for beginning students and the "fast-track" phonics lessons are likely to sound the same from room to room. Schools are also required to show staff support before they adopt the program. At least 75 percent of teachers must approve it through a secret ballot.

"The potential attraction is, it gives you a proven structure to deliver reading instruction," said Duane Arbogast, chief academic officer for Prince George's schools. "When you have a staff that's struggling with structure, Success for All provides that."

Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, a Brookings Institution scholar who oversaw education research in the George W. Bush administration, said Success for All has been extensively studied. "The evidence is that it improves reading achievement for children in younger grades," Whitehurst said.

Launched in 1987, Success for All spread across the country in high-poverty schools during the first Bush and Clinton administrations as a model for what was then known as "comprehensive school reform." Its growth stalled somewhat in the past decade when President George W. Bush promoted an initiative called Reading First that steered federal aid toward other programs.

Success for All's co-founder, Johns Hopkins University education scholar Robert E. Slavin, contends that Reading First was biased toward certain curriculum providers. Bush officials, who faced numerous complaints about the management of Reading First, denied the charge of favoritism.

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