History of Success for All Foundation

In the Beginning: Cooperative Learning

Success for All started in its first school in 1987, but its history really begins much earlier.

Bob Slavin and Nancy Madden met in the 1970s as students at Reed College in Oregon, and they quickly realized that they shared a passion for improving education. They spent hours walking in the rain, talking about how to make sure that all children got the education they deserved – especially children from disadvantaged circumstances. Both were studying psychology, and they quickly became fans of experimental research. They moved back to Maryland, Bob’s home state, to continue their studies and to put their ideas into action.

Success for All grew out of a program of research and development that started with basic research on cooperative-learning strategies. By 1980, Bob and Nancy’s group at Johns Hopkins University had learned how to harness the power of kids working with kids by structuring methods in which groups could succeed only if all members had mastered the academic material they were studying.

Up to that point, Bob and Nancy’s methods only dealt with instructional processes, not curriculum. The instructional processes were popular and effective, but Bob and Nancy felt that well-structured cooperative learning would never be a fundamental part of daily instruction until it was embedded in curriculum. Beginning in 1980, they developed a complete math program, Team Assisted Instruction, which combined cooperative learning with individualized instruction. In 1983, they developed Cooperative Integrated Reading and Composition, or CIRC. Research on both TAI and CIRC found strong positive effects on achievement; but even more, Bob and Nancy’s experience with these programs taught them how integrating process and curriculum could make cooperative learning and other effective practices the basis for reform in these core subjects. However, Bob and Nancy were still working classroom by classroom, and they began to see the need to involve entire schools in the reform process to deal with issues that individual teachers could not confront alone. In 1985, they began work on the cooperative elementary school, a model that combined TAI and CIRC with school organizational changes, assertive efforts to integrate special-education students, and family support programs. Again, the results were very positive, and the experience taught Bob and Nancy how working with whole schools could enhance professional development, implementation quality, and outcomes for all students.

At about the same time, they wrote a book (with Nancy Karweit), Effective Programs for Students at Risk, that reviewed the research on a wide variety of approaches that had been effective with disadvantaged, minority, and academically handicapped students.

Baltimore City’s Request 

In 1986, Bob and Nancy had a visit from Kalman "Buzzy" Hettleman, a former Maryland Secretary of Human Resources, who engaged them in a series of discussions on the question of what they’d do if they had total freedom to restructure an inner-city elementary school with an objective to make certain that every child would be successful. In early spring 1987, Hettleman announced to Bob and Nancy that he'd gotten enthusiastic approval from the then-superintendent and school board president in Baltimore to actually do what they had been talking about, and they set to work right away. Nancy, with Barbara Livermon of Notre Dame College, designed the first version of what became Reading Roots and a tutoring component to go along with it. Nancy Karweit designed preschool and kindergarten programs. By September 1987, they had finished the prototype, selected a pilot school (Abbottston Elementary), trained the teachers, and started implementation. After years of work, Bob and Nancy’s passion was finally put into practice as the Success for All program.

From the start, it was clear that Success for All was a winner. Children at Abbottston surged forward in their reading and writing, and early evaluations confirmed what everyone involved could see. In 1988, SFA added four more schools in Baltimore and one in Philadelphia, and these started off with great success as well.

Expanding Our Programs 

By the early 1990s, SFA had developed into a full-fledged company, and the foundation was developing its research base and roughly doubling the number of schools it served each year. In 1992, another crucial event took place: SFAF received funding from the New American Schools Development Corporation (now New American Schools, or NAS) to develop Roots and Wings. The main purpose of this funding was to add MathWings and WorldLab to Success for All, but it also enabled SFAF to greatly improve its existing programs and professionalize their dissemination.

Throughout the 1990s, SFAF was adding roughly 60% more schools each year, or quadrupling every three years. The foundation’s growing staff of trainers kept new and old schools developing, as the foundation continued to add schools. Research that SFAF was doing at Johns Hopkins continued to show strong positive effects on reading and writing achievement, and other researchers elsewhere, especially Steve Ross and Lana Smith at the University of Memphis, began to evaluate SFAF and confirm the foundation’s own findings.

In the mid 1990s, SFAF began to work in other countries, first in Canada and later in England and Mexico, and in adapted forms in Israel and Australia. Studies by researchers in Canada, England, Israel, and Australia compared their adaptations of SFAF to matched control schools and, once again, confirmed the kinds of effects on student reading achievement that it had found in the U.S. Furthermore, the foundation began to get evidence from its own research, along with research at what was then the Southwest Regional Laboratory (SWRL) in Los Angeles, that the bilingual and ESL adaptations of SFA were producing positive effects on Spanish and English reading measures.

Success Never Goes Out of Style 

SFAF’s focus is still on developing and disseminating high-quality programs for children from pre-kindergarten to pre-AP and on dealing with the problems inherent in maintaining quality and effectiveness in a rapidly growing organization. However, new developments are making the foundation’s work even more visible and influential. Most recently, the Consortium for Policy Research in Education did a comparison study of Success for All, America’s Choice, and the Accelerated Schools Project in its August 2009 “School Improvement by Design” report. The study showed that SFA students scored 10 percent higher in reading proficiency than AC, ASP, and all other comparison schools. In addition, SFAF was recently prequalified to provide school turnaround services in Colorado and Illinois.

Success for All is not magic; the foundation’s own research and that of others has demonstrated time and again that achievement outcomes are closely related to the quality of implementation. SFAF does not work for every child in every school. However, the story of the Success for All Foundation is one of relentless efforts by a remarkable group of developers, researchers, coaches, teachers, school leaders, and communities to put proven programs into every school willing to undergo extensive reform.