The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Robert Slavin, whose reading program is used in schools nationwide, dies at 70

In the late 1980s, Robert Slavin and his wife created the popular reading program Success for All. He was a distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education. (Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins University)

Robert Slavin, an education researcher who sought to translate the science of learning into effective teaching practices, and who partnered with his wife to create a reading program used in troubled schools across the country, died April 24 at a hospital in Baltimore. He was 70.

The cause was a heart attack, said Nancy Madden, his wife and research partner.

Dr. Slavin was a distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education, where he directed the Center for Research and Reform in Education and sought to help students — especially disadvantaged children — by developing research-backed educational programs and teaching techniques.

In his view, education needed to imitate public health or medicine, in which vaccines and treatment plans are introduced only after careful testing. “We always rush into things without a research basis,” he once told The Washington Post, lamenting a tendency for educators to embrace the latest fads without determining their effect on students.

Dr. Slavin wrote or co-wrote more than 300 articles and two dozen books, exploring topics including classroom organization, school desegregation and cooperative learning, in which students are divided into teams and help one another learn. He also wrote frequent essays for HuffPost and his personal blog, where he linked education research to the polar expeditions of Roald Amundsen and to his own experience teaching his grandchildren how to cook spaghetti and scrambled eggs.

“It’s very easy for adults to get caught up in their own jobs and funding and getting published. And Bob was really focused on what actually works for the kids who need the support the most,” said Bart Epstein, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Education who leads the nonprofit EdTech Evidence Exchange.

Dr. Slavin died two days before the launch of his latest project, ProvenTutoring, a coalition of more than a dozen tutoring programs aimed at helping disadvantaged students who had fallen further behind during the coronavirus pandemic. He had previously called on President Biden to institute a “Tutoring Marshall Plan,” in which 300,000 tutors would be hired to “heal the damage done” to children forced out of school by the coronavirus.

In a phone interview, his colleague Steven M. Ross, a senior research scientist and professor at the Center for Research and Reform in Education, said that Dr. Slavin was motivated by a few fundamental beliefs, including that all students could succeed in the classroom and that students benefited most from “active, collaborative and adaptive” learning, including through small group settings and one-on-one tutoring.

“Bob would always talk about how, when you walk into a kindergarten class anywhere in the world, every one of those kids thinks they’re a genius. They have light in their eyes and see their ability,” said Ross. “Then you go back to that same school in fourth or fifth grade, and so many of them think they can’t make it. That learning is hard. And Bob’s passion was to prevent that from happening, by getting there earlier.”

Dr. Slavin was perhaps best known for Success for All, or SFA, a reading program designed to help children in prekindergarten through eighth grade excel at reading, regardless of their background. Introduced at a single Baltimore elementary school in 1987, the program used scripted lessons and grouped students by ability rather than age, with individual tutoring given to students who fell behind.

“SFA has significantly influenced the way the federal government has spent $8 billion a year in Title I money for low-income schools, and has been hailed as one of the most influential education reforms ever launched,” The Post reported in 2002. By then, federal grant money was flowing into SFA schools, and the nonprofit Success for All Foundation — run by Madden, Dr. Slavin’s wife — was managing $61 million in programs.

While SFA often received high marks in academic studies, some education researchers argued that its success was overstated. Educators also complained that the program’s detailed scripts left little room for individualized lessons, with one Nevada teacher telling Forbes magazine in 2000 that she took early retirement to avoid submitting to SFA’s “mechanical factory approach.”

Yet after more than three decades, the program has endured, with key components in place at approximately 900 schools in 38 states, according to Susan Davis, Dr. Slavin’s longtime assistant.

“It’s rare that a publish-or-perish professor teaching classes would have the time, let alone the vision, to do something like that,” Ross said. “Many develop programs, but they end up dying in a journal publication — which people may read, but no one actually implements.”

Robert Edward Slavin was born in Bethesda, Md., on Sept. 17, 1950, and grew up in nearby Chevy Chase. His father, Joseph G. Slavin, was a clinical psychologist who led the Washington School of Psychiatry. His mother, Miriam Crohn Slavin, was a homemaker.

Dr. Slavin graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and studied psychology at Reed College in Portland, Ore., where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1972. One of his professors, Carol Creedon, taught him that schools could not only teach but transform children, inspiring him to go into education. He was soon discussing the field in long conversations with Madden, a fellow Reed student.

“On our first ‘date,’ we walked and talked for hours about improving schools,” she said in an email interview. “We kept talking about it for 50 years.” Before marrying in 1973, they worked at Portland elementary schools, designing a curriculum in which children learned history partly by acting out roles — pretending to be signers of the Declaration of Independence, for instance.

Dr. Slavin taught for a year at an Oregon school for children with disabilities before enrolling at Johns Hopkins, where he earned a doctorate in social relations in 1975. Madden later joined him on the faculty.

In addition to his wife, of Middle River, Md., survivors include three children, Rebecca Slavin of Parkville, Md., and Jacob and Benjamin Slavin, both of Towson, Md.; his mother, of Chevy Chase; a sister; three brothers; and three grandchildren.

“Bob was a force of nature,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank. In an email, he noted that while Dr. Slavin promoted his own reading program, he also launched a website to help educators identify other programs that met evidence-based standards under federal law.

“He was feisty, too,” Finn added, “and willing to engage in combat.” When SFA was not widely selected by schools as part of President George W. Bush’s $1 billion reading initiative, Dr. Slavin charged that the organization was the victim of bias and financial conflict of interest among government officials. His complaint set off an investigation within the Education Department, which found no evidence that officials had acted against SFA, according to a Fordham Institute report.

As part of his research on reading, Dr. Slavin investigated whether some children were struggling in school simply because they couldn’t see. Beginning in 2014, he helped organize a vision study in Baltimore, which led to a citywide program in which 60,000 children had their vision screened by a technician or school nurse. About 11,000 students then had formal eye exams, with 8,000 receiving free glasses, according to Megan Collins, a Johns Hopkins ophthalmology professor who worked with him on the project.

“Bob was always thinking about how do you promote this cross talk, this engagement, between health and education,” she said in a phone interview. “It seems like it shouldn’t be unusual, but it is.”

Read more:

Success for All, or for some? Educators disagree on a popular program’s effectiveness.

A literacy program has the nation’s best record for improving elementary schools. So why do teachers resist?

Why learning isn’t the most important thing kids lost during the pandemic