“Figures don’t lie, but liars figure,” goes an old saying (often incorrectly attributed to Will Rogers). The question then becomes whether we are to believe Dr. Robert Slavin, founder and champion of the “Success For All” scripted educational program, or Dr. Stanley Pogrow, an associate professor at the University of Arizona, Tucson and outspoken critic of that program. To aid in our search for the truth, we can turn to education writer Jay Mathews of the Washington Post.
The argument goes something like this: Dr. Slavin points to numerous studies which statistically detail how “Success For All” has resulted in improved test scores for students enrolled in the program. Dr. Pogrow counters with numerous studies showing precisely the opposite effect, and states that the studies showing the success of the program are the result of biased research and manipulated data. Mr. Mathews fairly and impartially points out that various school administrators he’s interviewed report greater test scores and strongly feel the program is working. Others feel it limits teachers, both in their approach to teaching, and in the choice of reading materials that they may make available to their students. Mr. Mathews points out, however, that numerous prestigious educational associations have heaped awards and praise on the program; meanwhile, various educators within those groups complain that it puts teachers on a stopwatch and shortchanges those students struggling with reading challenges.
So who’s right? The answer is: I simply don’t know, nor do I believe I can reach any objective conclusions based on the arguments presented in the articles of Doctors Slavin and Pogrow. There are simply too many outside factors about which I have insufficient data. It is not inconceivable that test scores have been affected by factors outside the realm of the selected definable, empirical data. For example, have there been changes to the school’s morning meal programs that resulted in student’s nutritional needs – so critical to proper brain function – are newly being met? Have any of these schools had massively successful book drives that filled their school libraries with a vast array of interesting reading choices? Have there been any natural disasters in areas where scores are down because student stress is up? Which schools were visited by NFL players who, by their very appearance, sparked a renewed enthusiasm in reading among students who might have otherwise remained unmotivated?
This is not to be dismissive of the exercise of reading these materials; it is simply my honest reaction to the arguments. The larger thought, made with pinpoint accuracy in my mind, comes from the title of an article omitted from this assignment: “Reading Programs Don’t Teach. Teachers Teach.”
This title sums things up nicely. I teach from a scripted reading program, and I find the structure to be beneficial. However, I am not required by my school administrators or compelled on my own to strictly adhere to the lesson plans or time constraints that these programs seek to impose. There is no silver bullet in education; nor is there a “one-size-fits-all” approach to teaching that will ever be preferable to a caring teacher, using all the skills they’ve acquired through practical classroom experience, taking the time and making the effort required to ignite that spark of breakthrough communication in the gifted-but-bored student, the scared student, the linguistically challenged student, or the various other unique children found in our classrooms.
Teaching is all about finding a way not merely to instill information, but to excite thought, and you are not going to get that from your basal reader or from the most carefully scripted educational program. These are only tools. A heart-lung machine doesn’t save a life; it is the expert medical team that uses the machine adeptly that saves a life. So it is with our profession. Teaching styles and programs will come and go, inspire debate, be embraced and discarded. But it is the dedicated teacher who will mold young minds and lives, and the most important tool available to them will never be a reading program or a mathematical curriculum. That most important tool will be their own determination to see success for all.
Slavin, Robert, Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 84, Issue 6, pgs 469-472, (Feb. 2002), Mounting Evidence Supports the Achievement Effects of Success For All
Pogrow, Stanley, Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 84, Issue 6, pgs 463-468, (Feb. 2002), Success For All Is a Failure
Mathews, Jay, School Administrator, Vol. 57, Issue 1, pgs 12-17, (Jan. 2000), Prepackaged School Reform