ALL Children Can Learn

SARA ENGRAM

April 11, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

In 1979, Ron Edmonds, an influential educational researcher, set forth a simple proposition that flatly contradicted many of the assumptions that influence the way schools work.

In an article on effective schools for the urban poor he said: "We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us."

He didn't say that we need to find new ways to deal with these problem students. Or that under the right circumstances we can succeed more often with these kids. But rather that disadvantaged children can succeed in school without exotic support programs, regardless of all the strikes against them.

Fourteen years later, the notion that failure is not inevitable is still regarded as fantasy in too many schools. But the Edmonds proposition has become a touchstone for educators who believe schools should not operate on the assumption that some students will fail.

One educator who believes that every child can learn is Dr. Robert E. Slavin of the John Hopkins University Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students. In Atlanta on Tuesday, he will have the pleasure of offering strong evidence for his position to the nation's premier organization of educational researchers.

Dr. Slavin's model for demonstrating how schools can reach each child is a program called Success for All, an approach designed to work in any school with any staff -- "whenever and wherever we choose," as Ron Edmonds put it.

Success for All was initiated in one Baltimore City elementary school six years ago, and expanded to four other schools the following year. Since then it has expanded within Baltimore and to schools in 15 other states.

The data from those early years was encouraging and has been publicized within educational circles, but this is the first year Dr. Slavin has been able to present evidence of the program's effectiveness in other locations, where teachers are not under his frequent supervision.

Schools in Baltimore and Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Indiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, West Virginia, South Carolina and elsewhere are finding that students in the program are reading ++ at higher levels than students in control schools in the same cities. Failure rates are dropping as well.

In Success for All schools in Baltimore, the number of students held back in kindergarten and grades 1 to 3 has dropped from 11 percent to near zero. There has also been a significant drop in the number of children placed in special education.

Often, school success stories are exceptions, attributable to charismatic principals, unusually dedicated teachers or other circumstances that would be difficult to replicate. But Dr. Slavin's results prove that Success for All travels well, that it can indeed work "whenever and wherever we choose."

Success for All is based on two principles: prevention and early ++ intervention.

Prevention works in two ways. It provides young children -- preferably beginning with pre-kindergarten classes (age 4) -- with a curriculum that helps them learn to read in every way possible. For instance, teachers use both phonics and comprehension-based approaches to word recognition.

A second component of prevention is a family outreach team, usually composed of people already on staff, to deal with specific obstacles to learning -- frequent absences, a need for eyeglasses or even a lack of sleep or poor nutrition.

It's easy to assume that this kind of help would be the most important part of any school-success program for disadvantaged students. In fact, Dr. Slavin says that while the outreach program can be extremely effective for a small number of students, the curriculum plays a much bigger role for the majority of children. Seen another way, that is a good argument that schools can't continue to blame social factors for students' failure to learn.

The program's early intervention efforts consist of intensive, expert, one-on-one tutoring provided as soon as a child seems to be encountering difficulty with reading. If the intervention comes early enough, the school can solve problems while they are small and while children are still excited about learning. The emphasis is on helping children before problems become entrenched and they are labeled as "remedial readers" or "learning disabled."

There is no panacea for all the problems that plague the nation's schools. But the results from Success for All suggest that schools could address some of those problems simply by admitting that they have become too comfortable with failure and resolving instead to focus on success.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director for The Evening Sun.

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