The past century has been filled with efforts to create model schools or programs that embody recipes for success. The assumption underlying these efforts has been that, if we can identify a set of practices that works well in one or more schools, it would or could automatically be made available to children everywhere. Let's look at some of the most interesting attempts along these lines.

The still famous education philosopher John Dewey founded the Laboratory School (the Lab) at the University of Chicago in 1896, and remained its director until 1904 when he left due to disagreements with the University administration.[28] It is perhaps the best-known "progressive" school in the nation, and boasts many remarkable achievements. Ninety-nine percent of its graduates go on to college, and a third of its senior class is typically among the semi-finalists of the National Merit Scholarship Program. An independent institution, the Lab includes a nursery, an elementary, a middle and a high school, with a combined enrollment of roughly 1,600 pupils.[29]

Even before the Lab School was a gleam in Mr. Dewey's eye, a Washington, D.C. public school named Dunbar was making its mark on history. Between the late 1800s and the mid 1900s, Dunbar's achievements were staggering. Among its graduates were a general, a federal judge, a Cabinet member, a Senator and the discoverer of blood plasma. What all these men, and the rest of the Dunbar alumni, had in common was that they were African Americans. At a time when overt racism and deep-seated prejudice were everywhere, and much of the white population thought blacks were uneducable, Dunbar students were soundly outscoring their white counterparts in test after test.

Though it lacked proper funding, and though few of its teachers or administrators had attended colleges of education, Dunbar did have several advantages. Because the city's white public school officials wanted little to do with them, the principals of Dunbar enjoyed great control over staffing, curriculum and discipline policy. Its teachers were often brilliant and highly educated, having graduated from institutions such as Oberlin and Harvard. Rather than students being assigned to the school automatically, they had to choose to attend. Because of its reputation for academic rigor, students who did choose Dunbar knew what they were in for before they arrived, and once there, knew that expectations for their performance were high.

Ironically, it was desegregation – intended to improve the education of African-Americans – that spelled the end of excellence for Dunbar High School. Under the U.S. Supreme Court's 1968 decision in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County,[30] choice-based student assignment programs that had the incidental effect of segregating the races were deemed unconstitutional. This went beyond the better-known Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954[31] which had ended only those programs that deliberately segregated the races. Once Dunbar ceased to be a school of choice, receiving students by random assignment, it came to be seen by school district administrators as just another D.C. public school. As such, they began to reassert their authority over it, and Dunbar's administrative and pedagogical freedom evaporated. By the 1990s, Dunbar could no longer be distinguished from any other troubled inner-city public school.[32]

Just as Dunbar's independence and excellence were being eroded, the federal government embarked on a bold program to create a score of different "model" educational programs. Dubbed "Follow Through," the program solicited curriculum and methodology proposals from education researchers, and then arranged to have 22 of these programs adopted in a host of schools around the country. Academic progress and attitudes of the students in these schools were then monitored during the 1960s and 70s, to determine which of the programs were most promising.

One of the participating programs, Direct Instruction, stood out. Direct Instruction systematically broke new topics down into understandable parts, and then had students practice those component skills, eventually putting them back together to master the complete task. This program not only outperformed all others in teaching basic skills overall, it placed first in each of the subcategories of reading, arithmetic, spelling and language. Direct Instruction placed a close second in promoting advanced conceptual skills, and was even the most effective at boosting students' self-esteem and responsibility toward their work.

Today, the Follow Through experiment has been almost entirely forgotten by educators. On those rare occasions when it is mentioned to student teachers in colleges of education, its findings are misrepresented and the clear superiority of the Direct Instruction program goes unmentioned. Why? Because, as a highly structured, teacher-directed method, Direct Instruction runs counter to the naturalistic teaching philosophy that dominates the nation's schools of education. Not only did Direct Instruction fail to catch on in colleges of education or in public schools as a whole, it was eventually abandoned even by the schools that had used it so effectively during project Follow Through. Student performance at these schools predictably fell off thereafter.[33]

Though the federal government never followed through on Follow Through, numerous individuals and institutions have come up with their own pedagogical models in recent years, which they have attempted to get schools to adopt. Ten of these programs were reviewed by New York Times Magazine writer James Traub in 1999 for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Most of the educational models, Traub found, could not produce rigorous scientific evidence showing that they improved student achievement. The two programs that did produce what Traub considered strong supporting evidence were newer variations on Direct Instruction and Success for All, a crisis-intervention program designed to prevent inner-city children in the early grades from falling behind in reading and math.

Despite having been supported by substantial evidence for 40 years, variants of Direct Instruction are estimated to be in just 150 to 300[34] of the nation's approximately 92,000[35] public schools. Success for All is in use in 1,130 to 1,500 schools.[36] Just as Direct Instruction has its critics, so does Success for All. It has been pointed out, for instance, that most of the studies supporting its effectiveness have been carried out by its creators.[37] An independent study conducted to evaluate the program's adoption in the Miami-Dade school district found it had no effect.38 The program's creators have attributed the mediocre Florida results to an incomplete and/or improper implementation of their methods.

This highlights a problem: Even when real student gains are attributed to one of these model programs, the students tested are typically drawn from only one or a few schools, making it hard to generalize to other schools in other regions. What the studies show is that a given program can have a positive effect, not that it necessarily will. Though program creators often provide extensive support to schools adopting their plans, commitment to and understanding of the programs varies among the educators who use them. Sometimes, even when commitment is initially high, it deteriorates over time. Sometimes classroom educators make changes to or deletions from the program, which affects student outcomes.

For example, in defending the results of the Coalition for Essential Schools program, a high-expectations-oriented program founded in 1985, that organization's public relations director notes that: "When the changes embodied in the Coalition's nine common principles are fully implemented both inside the classroom and in the school as a whole, the effects are consistent, beneficial, and significant."[39] The problem is ensuring faithful adoption of such programs over the long haul. Susan J. Bodilly, a senior social scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research institute based in Santa Monica, Calif., has observed that few program designers have the level of expertise in implementation that would enable schools to do this on a systematically successful basis.[40]

Ensuring faithful implementation and achieving widespread distribution are two problems that have not troubled the Kumon chain of "after-school schools." Founded by Japanese high-school teacher Toru Kumon, the company offers tutoring services that identify the areas in which students are weak and then provides them with a graduated sequence of worksheets that build confidence, proficiency and eventually mastery in a wide range of mathematical and reading skills. Operated as a for-profit business, Kumon has expanded to meet growing demand. From its modest beginnings in 1958, it has grown to enroll 1.49 million students in Japan and an additional 1.36 million in other countries. More than 110,000 American children currently study at Kumon USA's 3,000 schools, and the number continues to grow.

The record of model schools and model programs is thus quite mixed. Some of the most empirically proven programs have been shunned by the public schools. Some fantastically successful public schools have blazed like suns for decades, only to fizzle out without ever being reproduced elsewhere. Some programs adopted in public schools have been successful in one location but not another. Some top private schools, such as the Laboratory School, continue to serve only a thousand or so students after a century of operation while others, such as Kumon, expand to serve millions within a matter of decades.

One thing the model schools/programs approach does show is that there's hope: Something out there works; we're not dealing with an insoluble social catastrophe. While the current system seems to doom the successful tactics that have been discovered to only spotty results, at least there are good results somewhere. Knowing this, it seems reasonable to ask why schools such as Kumon have spread like wildfire while others, like the Lab School, have not.