Monthly Archives: February 2018

Why Not Direct Instruction?

Robert Pondiscio calls it the Rodney Dangerfield of curriculum as he berates the teaching community for disrespecting and neglecting  Zig Engelmann’s Direct Instruction program. Despite showing clear evidence of positive educational outcomes, Direct Instruction has been at best ignored, at worst actively rooted out for over forty years.

And whose fault is that?

..Direct Instruction, however effective, goes against the grain of generations of teachers trained and flattered into the certain belief that they alone know what’s best for their students.

Emphasis mine own, because oh, my goodness.

Trained and flattered.

Trained and flattered?




I’ll leave you all to snorfle.

I do not dispute that many teachers think DI is creepy and horrible.  Here’s a fairly recent implementation [tap] that might [tap] help [tap] explain why [tap] teachers shudder. Word one, what word? Oorah!

But now, a question for serious people who want serious answers that don’t require the pretense that teachers are trained and flattered and capable of shutting down educational developments they dislike: why isn’t Direct Instruction more popular?

I’ve read Zig Engelmann’s book, Teaching Needy Kids in Our Backwards System,  and he doesn’t blame teachers. He thinks teachers are backwards and not terribly bright, but argues that most teachers introduced to his curriculum love it.

No, Engelmann puts the blame elsewhere.


For example, Direct Instruction unambiguously won Project Follow through. Originally, the program director had intended to identify winners and losers, to prevent schools from picking weak curriculum. But ultimately, the results were released without any such designation. Such a decision is well beyond any teacher’s paygrade.

According to Engelmann, the Ford Foundation was behind the effort to minimize his product’s clear victory. The foundation awarded a grant to a research project to evaluate the results.

The main purpose of the critique was to prevent the Follow Through evaluation results from influencing education policy. The panel’s report asserted that it was  inappropriate to ask, “Which model works best?” Rather, it should consider such other questions as “What makes the models work?” or “How can one make the models work better?”

Engelmann believes that Ford Foundation wanted to feel less foolish about funding all sorts of failed curriculum. I have no idea whether that’s true. But certainly Project Follow Through did not declare winners and losers, and thus from the beginning DI was not given credit for an unambiguously superior result.

Teachers didn’t turn Ford Foundation against DI.

But Engelmann and Becker were expecting decisionmakers to appreciate their success even if Project Follow Through didn’t designate them the victor. Becker wrote up their results for Harvard Educational Review, expecting tremendous response and got a few responses bitching about the study’s design.

I mean, cmon. Teachers don’t read research. That wasn’t us.

Engelmann and Becker fought for recognition all the way up the federal government food chain,  including politicians, and got no results. Shocking, I know.

Zig reserves his harshest criticism for district superintendents, describing a number of times when his program was just ripped out of schools despite sterling results. Parents, teachers, principals complained. One principal was fired for refusing to discontinue the program.

Throughout his memoir, Engelmann seems extremely perplexed, as well as angered, by his program’s failure, and to his credit is still determined to pound down the doors and win acceptance. His partner, Wesley Becker, was less copacetic. After years of rejection by his university and policymakers, Becker left education entirely and drank himself to death in less than a decade.   A few disapproving elementary school teachers aren’t going to induce that degree of existential despair.

Teachers didn’t kneecap Direct Instruction curriculum because it imposed an “intolerable burden” upon them, as Pondiscio dramatically proclaims. No. Decisionmakers killed DI programs. Time and again, management at the federal, state, and local level refuse to implement or worse, destroyed existing successful programs.

Blaming teachers and educators for what are manifestly management decisions is not only contradicted by all the available evidence, but failing to engage with a genuine mystery.

Why have so many districts refused to use Direct Instruction? Why has it been the target of so much enmity by power players in the educational field?

Those are questions that deserve investigation.


I did some more digging and have some data to talk about. I also want to discuss Engelmann’s book, since he often contradicts the claims made about his program.

But I’ll leave that for another day, because every so often I like to prove I can get under 1000 words.



Teachers and Smart Kids

Note: This was originally the opening of a larger essay I abandoned. I published the draft in The Things I Don’t Write and someone mentioned it was a nice anecdote, which it was. So I’m just republishing the anecdote with some other thoughts.

Last summer’s Gifted, with just a few scenes set in a public school, really got the teacher right. Other things were off–I don’t think the principal would have acted as she did, and the first grade class was just a little too quiet for real life. And sure, Mary’s teacher Bonnie was the romantic lead, so she wouldn’t be obnoxious or clueless.

But on her second day, after Mary finishes a math quiz in 30 seconds and shouts “DONE!” in a genuinely obnoxious tone, Bonnie comes over quietly and says “I thought you’d finish that quickly, so I made you a second test” and hands her a college-level test. Mary jumps on it like a starved wolf, working through it with focus and intensity. (A very nice touch, that.) When she’s finished, she says “Done!” and puts her head down on the desk. And smiles at the teacher. She’d been tested.

If I’m to go by blog comments, public schools are teeming with jealous teachers who seek out brilliant kids to insult and mistreat. I’ve lost count of the folks whining about how much their teachers hated them for being smarter. The same meme runs through movies and books–public teachers treating exceptionally bright children with resentment, suspicion, or simply utter hamhandedness.

That’s never been my experience as either a student or, most recently, as a parent of an extremely large, effortlessly bright, ferociously intense son. The middle attribute wasn’t noticed much in public schools, but I have very clear memories of the one teacher who did.

The memory is the only distinct recollection I have of any parent teacher conference, in an elementary school my son only attended for three months back in second grade. His teacher, a petite brunette, seemed friendly enough, but soon exceeded my wildest expectations.

“His reading level is astounding. I’ve never had a student read as well with as much understanding.  He’s testing in the 99th percentile, at nearly high school level. But…there’s something wrong with his writing ability that concerns me.”

I nodded. “Yeah, dysgraphia runs in my family and I’m nearly certain he has it.”

She instantly wrote down the word. “Dysgraphia–like dyslexia? I’ve never heard of that.”

“Yeah, from what I’ve read, there’s no real fix for it.  I’m only aware of it because my brother and father have it. There are different forms. My son’s is restricted to writing. He just isn’t reaching fluency with letter formation, so writing each word takes forever.”

She smacked the table “I KNEW it. I KNEW there had to be something particular wrong. I never thought to check with special ed, because it’s pretty normal for boys to have terrible handwriting and be less expressive. But I’d never seen it in conjunction with this level of intellectual ability.” She rummaged through some papers and came out with my son’s, a paragraph of four short sentences with no capitalization, barely keeping within the lines. One laboriously written sentence went something like this.

and then……a weird thing happened!

“Look at that. Ellipses! He’s using extremely advanced grammar structures. He spelled ‘weird’ right! but writing these four sentences took him half an hour. I have other students producing a page or more in the same amount of time but with nowhere near the complexity. No sense of building to a story like he has. And terrible spelling.”

I still remember her pleasure–not in his disability, but in her having spotted both his intellect and his struggle. And without prompting, she’d created her own accomodation. “As you may know, a major learning objective in second grade is cursive writing, but there’s no way he can manage that. So I’ve been creating simple little rules for him to check on. Is everything capitalized? Does he have sentence endings–periods, exclamation points? Simple things he can do to feel a sense of achievement, to keep him from getting discouraged. I hope you can keep him aware of his tremendous intellect until he figures out writing.”

And indeed, I did. With the exception of those three months, when I was working out of town, I paid for a tiny, private school for idiosyncratic kids (not exclusive at all) for three years. But by fourth grade–long before I became a teacher–I decided to try public schools, because of the memory of that second grade teacher he’d had so briefly.

I’m not one of those public school “boosters”. I oppose charters and vouchers, yes, but that’s because those parents are demanding private school choice at public school prices. I do think, though, that parents need to be active advocates for their kids, particularly if they don’t quite fit the mold. That said, my son did far better than I did in public school, in part because he had me looking out for him. By 4th grade, he understood the gap between what he could easily write and what his thoughts were, and once he grasped that, his writing improved dramatically. He grew up a friendly giant, managing his intensity far better than I did (or do!), graduated an AP Honors student with 99th percentile ACT and subject test scores and a respectable 3.9 weighted GPA. He was accepted into top 50 schools, but chose a nearby top 70 school he’d always dreamed of going to. He was less successful in college, although he took a lot of demanding courses. It took him close to seven years to graduate, but while I angsted over this at the time, he was completely self-supporting for the final three of those years, living on his own and paying all his own bills. A month short of 30, he’s now making a nice living in sales, supporting a wife, two kids, and a mortgage. I can only assume that seventeen Baby Boomers are stuck with their thirty-something kids in their old bedrooms to make up for my good fortune while still keeping those millennial generation stats looking dreary.

Is he a nuclear physicist? No, but then he didn’t want to be. Prestigious jobs these days require connections, lots of money, or burning desire–he, like me, was 0 for 3. But he’s done well, and he uses his intellect in part (as I did), to make good money at a job he enjoys, but isn’t inspired by. He tells me he wants to wait until his forties to find his passion in life–just like I did, working in tech until I stumbled onto teaching, my real love.

My life course was different. I had a generally mediocre high school experience because I never really learned how to learn. English was my saving grace, where I benefited from outstanding teachers and developed my analytical skills. I grew up working class; my son grew up on the outer edges of upper-middle. Both of us have gifts that run verbal, which means we couldn’t do impressive tricks like solve integrals at the age of six. So I was a smart-ass, while he was a large, looming, usually sullen presence in many honors classrooms.

But never once did I get the sense that a teacher resented my intelligence.  Quite the contrary, many teachers who I thought hadn’t noticed me at all pulled me aside, telling me to get it together and use my considerable intellect for something other than reading science fiction or watching old movies. It took me decades to act on their advice,  but that’s because my working-class parents were unsure of the best way to help.  My son, on the other hand, rarely had teachers who realized he was exceptional–one of my son’s favorite high school graduation memories is the number of teachers who did a double take at his AP Honors gold cord. But he had me, and one of my proudest achievements is….not his success, which is his, but the easier time he had getting there, in part because I was there to guide him.

Bu my son’s second grade teacher, Bonnie in Gifted, and all those teachers who admonished me to get it together are much more typical of teacher reaction to kids whose intellect is way ahead of the class than sneers, contempt, and hostility. So next time someone tells you a tale of woe about how his teachers were jealous of his tremendous intellect and treated him with petty malice, allow for the possibility that maybe he’s just obnoxious. Sure, there are mean, petty teachers. Just not all that many.

One of the reasons this piece sat for months in drafts is because I originally wanted to move on to discuss what to do, if anything, with “gifted” kids. But it’s complicated. So I’ll leave that for another day.

But until then, please check out this very old piece, written before the new GRE finally eliminated that embarrassing gap. This is still a problem. Kids with exceptional verbal gifts have no clear career outlet, nor are there easy, largely fake, academic solutions like acceleration. Before we can really address gifted education, we have to address the fact that we don’t know how to educate or hire them.

The Things I Don’t Write

For someone who struggles to write four essays a month, I do a lot of outside work for my blog. Much of it goes nowhere-I can’t package my thoughts, I can’t find the data I want, I get overwhelmed, or I realize that it’s all going back to the one big idea I have about education which is OH MY GOD YOU PEOPLE ARE DELUSIONAl.

For example, in the last two weeks, I’ve:

  • read three books on various educational topics
  • determined how many immigrants, legal and otherwise, live in each state
  • collected and analyzed the third and fifth grade test scores from Illinois for the years 2001-2006
  • Tried to figure out how to run a regression analysis that I could make sense of. Robert Verbruggen even helped, but I threw up my hands and said alas.

In previous years, I’ve spent weeks trying to figure out the precise development of our modern math curriculum, which I almost have nailed, but not quite. I’ve looked up the demographics of 50 cities on Money’s Best Places to Live list. I’ve spent hundreds of days almost writing things, and then abandoned the effort.

Sometimes I’ve gotten an idea at 11:30 pm and written all night because I know that if I stop, I’ll never get back to it. Other times I’ll write all day and then sudden stop, depressed, knowing it’s going nowhere.

So right now I have 98 drafts in my WordPress account. A lot of them are nearly blank, with a few sentences and a link. Some are considerably more.   And since I spent so much time this week researching, I had a thought–why not just talk about the work I don’t finish?

I couldn’t bring myself to publish the draft posts. That feels like too much of a commitment. These pieces aren’t ready. Instead, I created PDFs of snipped pages. That’s weird, I know. Stop looking at me like that!

Memory: January, 2014

I’d just written Memory Palace for Thee, but not for Me, another piece I did a great deal of research for. When I finished it, I really had something more to say, so I promised a part 2.

But part 2 never gelled. I wanted to start by making people think about different things that memory means, and I still like the four anecdotes. But I instantly knew they were too long, too distracting. I left them in and kept plugging away, because sometimes I get focus and put things together in ways I hadn’t originally intended. Then, a second problem–the issues with memory are so directly related to curriculum, to skills vs. knowledge. So I felt I had to discuss those issues, and man, by that time it was just a mess. Each individual part is interesting, but it’s about four pieces.

Today, I’m much better at seeing that, at chunking off pieces and limiting my scope. But back then, I just gave up. So here it is: Memorize What, Exactly?

It’s a big mess, but I do like the four anecdotes, particularly the Game of Thrones one. I was disappointed in my failure to finish this, and for years, I ignored the published essay. But a year ago I revisited it and am really pleased. Certainly the research wasn’t a waste. I talk to my students about episodic versus semantic memory, echoic vs. iconic and they always enjoy it.

May, 2014: Common Core Curriculum?

Paul Bruno was one of my favorite bloggers, one of the only teachers I knew of who cared about policy. (Alas, he cared about policy so much he left teaching and is now working on a PhD, last I checked.) He wrote a piece on Common Core that triggered a longstanding beef I have with the curriculum folks–namely, their peculiar belief that standardized curriculum have any sort of meaning in  a world outside France, which apparently teaches exactly the same thing every day in every school. I can’t even imagine.

Anyway, I wrote one of many different attempts to state how insane it is to care about what textbook we use, at least at the high school level. We all customize. And at some point I went oh, lord, why bother? I have no evidence other than that of my own eyes. So I put it aside.

Common Core and Curriculum

July, 2014: Taking on Andrew Ferguson

The Weekly Standard has three of my favorite writers: Matt Labash, Andrew Ferguson, and Christopher Caldwell. (My tweet on this point neglected to mention Caldwell, but only because I thought he’d left the magazine.)

In 2014, Ferguson wrote this stunningly awesome piece on the Common Core lunacy, shredding what anyone familiar with the landscape would call the reform side of education policy. But then, in two paragraphs, he slimed the progressive side of thing–teachers, ed schools, unions, the like–without the slightest acknowledgement that he was now attacking the opponents of those who inflicted Common Core among us. Imagine reading an article ripping the NRA apart as “gun nuts” and then casually spending two paragraphs mocking the people who want to ban assault weapons–and calling them “gun nuts”, too. That’s what Ferguson did.

I spent a week trying to explain why this was crazy. But then I remembered that Republicans are just utterly ignorant of the educational field of play. Despite his brilliance, Ferguson wouldn’t even care about the distinction that rendered his article almost meaningless. Why spend time and energy criticizing one of my favorite writers who would just shrug me off as a stupid teacher?

Oh, No, Not Andy Ferguson!

May 2015: Why Isn’t the GOP Looking for Popular Education Policies?

The GOP and/or conservative inability to update their priors on education policy has plagued me for a few years now, so a year after I abandoned the Ferguson essay I tried again.

There’s a riot in Ferguson, in Baltimore, and Jonah Goldberg, Charles Krauthammer, and Kevin Williamson all basically blamed white female teachers for problems that, best I could see, involved white male cops and their black male victims. All of this would be solved by choice, they assured us.  Good lord, guys, the 90s are calling. They want their ed policy back. Mainstream conservative punditry and GOP politicians haven’t updated their rhetoric in 20 years. The actual reformers have. They’re in mourning about the utter trouncing they’ve taken both in the political and public arena.

But I get worn out by this, too. So one more essay bites the dust. Here’s the skeleton: Education Policy: Restricting the Range

In retrospect, I wonder if conservative blindness about education policy is linked to the general blindness they all had about Trump. That is, they had GOP voters locked up without any alternatives, so no need to cater. They never really understood how unpopular their ideas were with the GOP voters because no one was providing an alternative. Trump figured this out on immigration, trade, and political correctness. I await the day he grasps reality on education.

September 2016: Fixing Schools

This came about after my August road trip, when I was driving all over the Northwest listening to NPR or conservative radio, whatever reception allowed, and left or right, everyone was talking about our failing schools and what to do about them. So I wrote up my own plan: How to Fix a Failing High School

This one’s actually pretty good. I should get back to it.

October 2016: Popular Cities and their Demographics

I spent at least a week looking up demographics for that Money’s Best Places to Live 2016 piece because I was incredibly annoyed at the stated elimination criteria: we eliminated the 100 places with the lowest predicted job growth, the 200 communities with the most crime, and any place without a strong sense of ethnic diversity (more than 90% of one race). (emphasis mine). My mind can’t even conceive of 88% white being granted standing as a place with a “strong sense of ethnic diversity”.

It followed, naturally, that the selected cities would have very little mention of race, which made me curious. I knew, of course, that none of the cities would be majority black or Hispanic. But how many of the chosen were heavily Asian? Or even more interesting, to me, how many were tilting in that direction?

“What our town needs is more black people” said no Asian. Ever. Recent Asian immigrants have next to no use for African Americans, and value Hispanics only for their cheap labor. Hispanics and blacks don’t seem fond of each other; I think New York is the only city that’s managed to grow a Hispanic population while still maintaining the same levels of African Americans, and that may be due to African immigrants.

Few non-majority white diversity levels maintain for the long haul. Three exceptions I’ve noted–remember, all of this is anecdotal.

First,  70-30 Hispanic white high schools persist, perhaps because a good chunk of the Hispanics are multi-generation American and self-identify as white. But a school that’s 50% Asian or black  and the other half majority white will in a few years be 80% Asian or black.  Whites don’t hang around for blacks or Asians, in my experience.

Next, whites do tolerate genuine racial diversity well, probably because there are fewer cultural distortions that arise with both Asians and African Americans.  I can think of a number of 30-30-30-10 schools that hold on to those numbers for a decade or more.

Finally, Asians and Hispanics seem to co-exist without toppling over in one direction or the other.

The idea was that white folks are everyone’s second favorite race–if Asians, blacks, and Hispanics can’t have a majority school of their own race, then they want the majority to be white. At least, that’s what their behavior would suggest.

But then, I realized I could turn it upside down. Whites may be first choice of second favorite, but Hispanics do pretty well at not causing extinction-level flights by any race. So maybe they’re not second favorite, but including Hispanics might be key to maintaining diversity.

I can’t find any data on this, which is why I dropped the piece: Everybody’s Second Favorite.

April, 2017: Thoughts on Gifted

I thought Gifted was a sweet little movie that gave public schools more than their due.  I ended up using a piece of this in a later essay, but my son’s second grade teacher deserves her due:  Gifted and Public Education


So there’s a sampling. I left several pieces off because by golly, maybe I’ll write about them some day.

I’ve been writing now for six years, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the attention this blog has gotten, and the body of work it represents. But given I have a day job, I waste too much time and energy on pieces that don’t go anywhere. Perhaps I’m letting the perfect be the enemy of the good enough, but that’s not an attribute I display in any other area of my life. This just seems to be how I make decisions about the best way to spend my time.