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Thinking fast, Slavin declared he was indeed preparing to be a teacher, then headed for the MAT office to see if Reed undergraduates could take master’s-level courses. “They told me no one ever had, but they didn’t see any reason why not,” he recalls. Slavin signed up, and Madden did the same a year later; both graduated with teacher certifications in hand.

They also graduated with hands-on experience in some of the major issues occupying educators in the early 1970s.One of these was the use of simulation--learning history, for example, by playing the roles of historic figures. At one level, simulation was a terrific game. But it was also an exciting way to get students motivated to learn. With typical Reedie aplomb, Madden and Slavin applied for and received a $2,000 grant to develop a simulation program for junior high science students. World Lab, as they called it, engaged the students in managing the technological development of new colonies on the planet “Zupita.” “Our concern was that the typical high school subjects were too far in the future to be relevant for 12- or 14-year-olds,” Slavin says. “This was a way to make learning interesting and useful.”

Miraculously, he says, a Portland-area school district opened its doors to “these two sci-fi kids from Reed with chemicals and Bunsen burners.” Staying one step ahead of their seventh graders, Slavin and Madden “would sit up all night reading about experiments and trying them out.” It worked. The project, which became Slavin’s senior thesis, was a whopping success with the students, “and parents told us, ‘I wish this had happened when I was a kid!’”

The other major change in education at the time was cooperative learning: having students work in teams whose members are responsible for each other’s learning as well as their own. The concept’s seminal thinker was James Coleman, whose 1961 book The Adolescent Society was a major influence on Slavin. “Coleman compared sports, where one person’s success contributes to everyone’s, with academics, where working hard makes you a geek rather than a hero,” he says. Schools were taking their first look at cooperative learning, and Slavin, eager to be part of it, decided to pursue graduate studies with Coleman at Johns Hopkins.

Despite the fact that Coleman left shortly after he arrived, the university Slavin had once considered stodgy proved “the perfect place to be.”


Coleman’s Center for the Study of the Social Organization of Schools was carrying on his research on structuring cooperative learning for the classroom; while it would have been fascinating to work with such a dominant intellect, in Coleman’s absence Slavin had the chance to develop his own style. He rushed to complete his Ph.D. in two years when it appeared the center’s federal funding was drying up. But after a last-minute rescue by the Office of Education, he wound up in a leadership position in 1975 and has been associated with Johns Hopkins ever since. Madden, meanwhile, earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at American University.

Over the next few years, the pair conducted research on cooperative learning strategies and began disseminating simple programs. By 1980, in response to teachers’ requests for more help, they’d started designing entire courses structured for cooperative learning. “We felt it would never be a fundamental part of daily instruction until it was hard-wired into the curriculum,” Slavin says. They tackled a math program first, and produced a reading and composition program three years later.


Parents told us, “I wish this had happened when I was a kid!”


“But we were still working classroom by classroom,” Slavin writes. “We 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 started developing the “cooperative elementary school” model combining their math and reading programs with school organization changes, integration of special education students, and family support. They also published a book, Effective Classroom Programs for Students at Risk, based on an exhaustiveliterature review.

Life took a dramatic turn for the pair when Kalman “Buzzy” Hettleman, former secretary of human resources for the state of Maryland, paid them a visit in 1986. “He essentially asked us, ‘What would you do if you had total freedom to restructure an inner-city elementary school with the goal of making sure every child would be successful?’” Slavin says. This led to a series of what Slavin and Madden thought were just enjoyable discussions. They were stunned when Hettleman walked in one day with the news that Baltimore was ready to implement what they’d been talking about.

In one sense, they were more than ready for this “wonderful spark at the exact right moment,” Slavin says. “We had the academic knowledge from writing our book and the practical knowledge from our cooperative learning experiences.” On the downside, they needed to design a beginning reading component from scratch (all their existing programs were upper elementary) in the space of a few months. Madden set to work on what has since become Reading Roots. By this time the couple had two children, and the oldest, then six, was “very useful to us,” she laughs. “In fact, we did our first revision when our second child was six, and our second revision when the third was six.”

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