Tag Archives: direct instruction

Four Obvious Objections to Direct Instruction

Recently, I defended teachers from Robert Pondiscio’s accusatory fingerpointing. Why no, sir, twas not teachers at the heart of the foul deeds preventing DI’s takeover of the public schooling system.

I don’t have any great insights into why DI isn’t more popular. But any reasonable person should, without any research, have several immediate objections to accepting the Direct Instruction miracles at face value. Hear the tales about Project Followthrough and spend ten minutes reading about this fabulous curriculum, and a few minutes thought will give rise to the following obstacles.

The weird objection

I’ll have more to say later, hopefully, about the roots of Direct Instruction. But no research is necessary to see the B. F. Skinner echoes.  Direct Instruction looks much more like conditioning than education.  A curriculum sample (I can’t make it bigger, click to enlarge):

NIDIcurriculum

You’re thinking good heavens, those “signals” are just optional, right? Nope. This video , without prompting, tells the viewer that yes, “signals” are required.

Recently Michael Pershan observed that ” while schools are primarily in the business of teaching kids as much as we can, it’s not anyone’s only priority. There are other things that teachers, administrators, parents and kids value besides instructional efficiency.”

Yes. Many of us value public schools that don’t feel like a cult.

The age objection

From the meta-analysis that’s given rise to all the recent stories:

The strong pattern of results presented in this article, appearing across all subject matters, student populations, settings, and age levels, should, at the least, imply a need for serious examination and reconsideration of these recommendations.

It’s behind a paywall, but I can’t help but be skeptical. I’ve never heard of Direct Instruction implementations at high school.  High school is leagues harder than elementary school and middle school. How would DI work?

Teacher script: “Hamlet Act One Scene One Word One What Word?”
[tap]
Class: “Elsinore!”

Or math:

Teacher script: “Y=mx + b is the slope intercept form. Word m What Word?”
[tap]
Class: “Slope!”
Teacher: “Word b What Word?”
[tap]
Class: “Intercept!”

How many subjects have been broken down to that level? How many books have they scripted for instruction? Or is the high school curriculum like this US History sample, a few questions every paragraph?

I don’t know. I’d guess the researchers don’t know, either.

If DI’s curriculum isn’t entirely defined for high school students in all subjects, then how can the claim be made that DI works for all age levels?  How can we be sure that the gains made in elementary school aren’t subject to the dreaded fadeout? What if DI is simply a good method of teaching basic skills but won’t address the gaps that arise in high school?

Maybe answers–good answers, even–exist, maybe DI works for fifteen to eighteen year olds, maybe Romeo and Juliet can be broken down into tap-worthy chunks. Or maybe those writing paeans about Project Followthrough have no success stories about older kids to tell.

The money objection

There’s a new meta-analysis [that] documents a half-century of “strong positive results” for a curriculum regardless of school, setting, grade, student poverty status, race, and ethnicity, and across subjects and grades.–Robert Pondiscio(emphasis mine)

If it works for all income levels, why aren’t rich kids using it?

I mean, surely, this incredible curriculum is what they use at Grace Church School or Circle of Children to teach these exclusively and mostly white little preschoolers how to read. Distar is the gold standard at  exclusive Manhattan elementary schools. All the teachers are going word one, what word? (tap) and all the little hedge fund progeny obediently repeat the word, or Word.

Except, of course, that’s not the case at all. Check all the websites and you’ll see they brag about their inquiry learning and discovery-based curriculum.

 

Zig Engelmann has written that he focused his attention on the “neediest” children, but that his curriculum helps all students achieve at the highest level. In which case, Zig, go sell your curriculum to the most exclusive private schools. Public schools spend much time arguing that poor children deserve the same education rich children’s parents pay for.

The race objection

I almost left this section out, because it is necessarily more detailed and less flip than the others. At the same time, I don’t see how anyone can hear about DI the miracle and not ask about race, so here goes.

About thirty years ago, Lisa Delpit wrote a stupendous essay, The Silenced Dialogue that just obliterated the progressive approach to education, effectively arguing that underprivileged black children needed to be directly taught and instructed, unlike the children of their well-meaning progressive white teachers.  As I looked up her article to cite  her comments about the “language of power” I realized that Delpit actually discussed this using the context of Direct Instruction (Distar is the primary Engelmann brand):

DelpitonDistar

Note that Delpit, who so accurately skewers progressives for withholding the kind of information that black children need, then rejects the notion of “separating” students by their needs.

She wants it both ways. She wants to acknowledge that some kids need this kind of explicit, structured curriculum while denying the inevitable conclusion that other kids don’t.

DI claims that all kids, regardless of race, see strong improvements.  But take a look at the videos, like this one from Thales Academy, and notice all the students reciting together. They all learn at exactly the same pace?

 

Really?

So I’m going to spoil alert this one. A quick google reveals that Direct Instruction doesn’t allow a student to progress until he or she has mastered the level, and yes, there is ability grouping.

History suggests that the students who move forward quickly will be disproportionately white and Asian, while the students who take much longer to reach mastery will be disproportionately black and Hispanic.

In fact, public schools are strongly discouraged from grouping by ability, and by discouraged I mean sued into oblivion. So how can Direct Instruction achieve its great results without grouping? And if DI helps all races equally, then won’t the existing achievement gap hold constant?

It’s quite possible that DI is an excellent curriculum for at risk kids, particularly those with weak skills or a preference for concrete tasks. It’s not credible that DI instituted in a diverse school won’t either lead to very bored students who don’t need that instruction or the same achievement and ability gaps we see in our current schools.

As I said, these are the relatively straightforward objections that, I think, make a hash out of Robert Pondiscio’s claim that teachers, those foul demons of public instruction, were the source of all DI discontent.  Next up, I’m going to look at some of the actual data behind the claims.

 


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?

Trained?

Flattered?

Teachers?

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.