The Success for All program, a school improvement effort funded with federal Investing in Innovation (i3) dollars, seems to be a success. A new evaluation of the program conducted by MDRC,The Success for All Model of School Reform, found that kindergarteners who went through the program demonstrated about 12 percent higher average annual growth in reading achievement than their average peers.Success for All (SFA) received a five-year grant in the first i3 competition funded by the Department of Education in 2010 to help struggling elementary schools. The program, which first came on the scene in 1987, was already in place in about 1,000 schools around the country. The new federal dollars enabled SFA to expand its program to another 1,100 schools. SFA requires schools to adopt several central tenets:
- Students from kindergarten through 6th grade use a reading strategy that highlights phonics (for younger students) and vocabulary comprehension. It’s a highly structured curriculum – a 90-minute reading period, scripted lesson plans, and regular assessments and student data analysis.
- SFA facilitators and school leaders work to address the non-academic issues schools face but that, nonetheless, affect students’ outcomes. Behavior, attendance, and parental engagement are chief among those concerns.
- SFA facilitators use defined strategies to bring teachers on board, provide training and professional development through coaches, and build school leadership.
The MDRC study was a rigorous one – it randomly assigned schools either to participate in the SFA program or to act as a control group. Just one year in, surveys and student data showed that the students participating in SFA had, indeed, improved in their reading abilities. MDRC will re-evaluate the program again several more times over the next several years. But the one-year outcomes alone suggest the program has significant potential to help children in the early grades better learn to read.
Evaluators first looked at the fidelity of implementation – how closely schools adhered to the SFA model. Most averaged slightly above half of the maximum possible score. The lowest-scoring school rated at 42 percent, while the highest-scoring reached 78 percent. Schools primarily cited insufficient staff and time during the school day as the top reasons they struggled to implement the program. According to participants, among the most challenging components to implement were fully implementing tutoring for students who needed it, grouping and regrouping students, and assigning key staff members the program required.
Another implementation challenge was that many teachers disagreed with the rigidity of the curriculum, arguing it “stifled their creativity.” (Principals said, however, that their newest teachers especially benefitted from this provision.) Teachers also said the program sometimes moved too quickly; some of them wanted to spend extra time on a particular lesson until their students understood more fully. And teachers were inexperienced with (and sometimes skeptical of) the program’s data-driven instructional requirements, and some cited technical and logistical challenges with the data system.
But responses were still positive by the end of the year. More than 85 percent of teachers, and 100 percent of principals, said the Success for All program was significantly different from their schools’ earlier reading approaches. And by spring, 71.4 percent of teachers and 100 percent of principals agreed or strongly agreed that their schools had benefitted from the program. An analysis of teachers’ lesson plans showed that teachers in the Success for All program focused much more on reading comprehension and vocabulary, and focused somewhat less on spelling, than similar non-SFA schools.
While teachers in Success for All schools generally dedicated about the same amount of time to reading instruction as at the control schools, SFA teachers were different in three key ways. SFA students were engaged in more cooperative learning; they were more likely to be grouped by ability (as opposed to by grade level, for example); and SFA teachers followed the lesson plans far more closely.
Evaluators also looked at student learning. The hard work of implementation paid off, at least in the first year of the program. At the end of the first year, SFA kindergartners had improved more than their non-SFA peers, particularly on the “Word Attack” test – one that measures students’ phonics skills. In total, kindergartners in the Success for All program improved their Word Attack scores by about 12 percent over the average kindergartner.
However, it’s worth noting that the program didn’t work for everyone. It had no discernible effect on the Word Attack scores of Spanish-speaking students, nor did it benefit special education students. Other subgroups–racial minorities, including black and Hispanic students, as well as students in poverty–scored higher under the Success for All program than their peers in other schools. But this study suggests that the program isn’t yet designed to work for all students. Certain subsets of students may benefit more from other, or additional, interventions.
The Investing in Innovation program was designed to promote well-researched, evidence-based programs – and it seems the Department of Education has a hit on its hands with Success for All. Teachers and principals have responded well to the program, and kindergartners have shown significant evidence of success. Though the program needs more tweaking to ensure fidelity of implementation and address the specific needs of English language learners and special needs students, this initial evaluation of the program suggests it holds great potential.