Ensuring early school success for all children

iStock_000021886001XSmall (1)School failure, research shows, is unnecessary and almost entirely preventable through early intervention. But, Robert E. Slavin, Nancy L. Karweit, and Barbara A. Wasik, Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students, report that too many educational policy-makers continue to believe that “substantial numbers of students – due to low IQs, impoverished family backgrounds, or other factors – are unlikely to be able to keep up with their classmates and will, therefore, need long-term support services to keep them from falling further behind.”

Slavin et al. believe that these remedial policies are both personally damaging to children and too expensive and that early intervention is preferable to remediation. Their federally funded study of early intervention assessed the effectiveness of programs intended to prevent early school failure.

Although early-intervention programs for children from birth to age four are commonly assessed by measuring IQ and language proficiency, Slavin et al. studied actual success or failure in school – reading performance, retention and placement in special education – to determine which programs were most effective.

Birth to age 3

Previous research into early intervention indicates that both child-centered and family-centered interventions can have a positive effect on IQ scores almost immediately. These early-intervention programs tend to involve intense, long-term stimulation and support, and, therefore, are expensive.

In the Milwaukee Project, for example, at-risk toddlers were given 35 hours of stimulation each week. This included high-quality preschool and one-on-one interaction with trained personnel. Parent training and vocational skills were also provided for parents. By age 10, the children in this study (the mothers of whom were mildly retarded) had IQs similar to those of low-risk children and higher than those of a randomly selected control group of at-risk children. In fact, by fourth grade, these children were reading a half year ahead of the control group, and special-education referrals had been cut by more than half.

Two other early-intervention programs, the Gordon Parent Education Program and the Carolina Abecedarian Project, provided intense infant stimulation, preschool and similar services to families, and were also successful in demonstrating that IQ is not a fixed trait, but one that can be modified by changing a child’s environment in the first years of life. These researchers point out, however, that only intensive intervention over a period of several years can be expected to produce lasting effects on measures of cognitive functioning.


Attendance at high-quality preschools has long-term benefits for children. Although it is now clear that preschool alone is not enough to prevent early school failure or to make lasting improvements in reading performance, it does reduce retention and special-education placement, which, ultimately, lowers the high school dropout rate.


In kindergarten research, end-of-year measures of reading readiness, language development, etc., indicate that full-day kindergarten has advantages over half-day. However, the advantages gained seem to disappear by the end of first grade.

Certain highly sequenced and structured kindergarten programs, including Alphaphonics, TALK, Early Prevention of School Failure, and IBM’s Writing To Read, were studied to determine their effect on reading performance. Of these, only Alphaphonics was shown to have long-term positive effects on reading performance. (IBM’s Writing To Read has had small positive effects that failed to carry over into first or second grade.)

Retention: Developmental and transitional grades

The practice of retention in early grades is common. Often called “developmental kindergarten” or “transitional first grade”, its purpose is to give the child “an extra year to mature.” The precise effects of retention are difficult to gauge, since they vary depending on whether students are compared to children in their current grade level or to their same-age peers. Clearly, however, an extra year in the early primary grades has no lasting positive effect on academic performance.

Reducing class size

Reduction of class size has been studied as a way to increase academic achievement. But, research shows that while large reductions (from 25 students to 15, for example) can have moderately positive results, small reductions (from 25 to 20) have negligible results on achievement.

The largest study of class-size reduction was carried out in Tennessee and involved randomly placing students in classes of 15, 20 or 25 and keeping them in these same size classes from first through third grade. The study found only moderately positive effects in favor of the smallest classes after three years in the program. A year after leaving the program, there remained a positive but very small difference between students from the smallest and largest classes.

Studies employing aides in classrooms to reduce the student-adult ratio (a much less expensive solution) have shown no effect on student achievement.

Nongraded primary programs

Nongraded primary programs are designed to allow students to be regrouped across grade levels so they can proceed through skill development at their own pace. The first research from these programs supports the use of simple forms of this strategy, but not complex ones.

In simple forms, students work in ungraded groups, primarily in math and reading, to allow teachers to accommodate individual needs without requiring students to do a lot of seatwork. More complex forms that make extensive use of individualized seatwork, learning stations and open space generally have been ineffective in increasing student achievement.

One-to-one tutoring

According to Slavin et al, individual tutoring is, by far, the most effective strategy for preventing early reading failure. Of the five tutoring programs they studied, the three that use certified teachers for tutors – Success For All, Reading Recovery, and Prevention of Learning Disabilities – showed the largest and longest-lasting improvements in reading achievement.


Research on prevention of school failure clearly shows that no one program can prevent school problems if administered for only one or two years. To prevent school failure, it is critically important to enable all children, regardless of their family backgrounds or personal characteristics, to enter first grade with good language skills, cognitive skills and self-concepts.

These researchers believe that intensive intervention will be needed for only a brief period for the great majority of students, including nearly all those children currently served in remediation programs. Intensive, early interventions followed by long-term relatively inexpensive improvements in instruction and other services to families can produce substantial and lasting gains.

The best evidence for this conclusion comes from research on the Success For All program, which begins with four-year-olds and provides high-quality preschool and kindergarten followed by one-on-one tutoring in first grade for those with serious reading problems. It uses research-based curriculum and instructional methods throughout the elementary years, in conjunction with nongraded reading instruction and family support programs. Not only do these students perform better than controls in first grade, but their advantage continues to grow in succeeding elementary years.

Slavin et al. point out that ending school failure depends on linking prevention, early intervention and continuing instructional improvement. Transitional grades, reductions in class size, and the use of instructional aides are not effective. There is abundant evidence that we can ensure school success for the majority of disadvantaged, at-risk children by using existing Chapter 1 and local funds in more productive ways, such as one-to-one tutoring.

Ensuring success for all at-risk students will take a greater investment. A small percentage of these students, they write, may require extended tutoring and intensive family services. However, even the most expensive early interventions can be justified on cost-effectiveness grounds alone if they reduce the need for later and continuing remedial and special education services, retentions and other costs related to school failure. The issue, Slavin et al conclude, is not whether we can, but whether we are willing to prevent school failure for virtually all children.

“Preventing Early School Failure: What Works?” Educational Leadership, January/February 1993,Volume 50, Number 5, pp. 10-18.

Published in ERN January/February 1993, Volume 6, Number 1.

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