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Sure, It May Sound Awful, But It Works

“It sounds awful,” the woman wrote in response to my column praising the results a Houston elementary school has attained with something called direct instruction.

“Direct instruction,” as she accurately understood, heavily involves set questions and scripted responses to any answer a child might give. Only in the most unusual circumstances does it allow for anything that might be called teacher creativity. It is almost like a computer program in an if-this-then-that mode. It does sound awful.

But it works.

I’ve just left a luncheon at the Heritage Foundation with Houston’s Thaddeus Lott, for whom direct instruction has worked astoundingly well. He used it to take the Mabel B. Wesley Elementary School, where he was principal from 1975 to 1995, into a U-turn toward academic excellence. His Wesley fourth-graders’ reading scores were in the 82nd percentile on the Stanford test - and so were his first-graders when tested last September.

You see, Lott begins his souped-up instruction in kindergarten, on the sensible notion that that was the only way he could hope for his children to be competitive with those from the affluent suburbs. But listen: His kindergartners are doing second-grade reading and math and know the capitals of all the states.

And his first-graders at the beginning of this school year tested 12th among the Houston Independent School District’s 182 elementary schools - including those from the most affluent parts of town. Of the top 13 schools, only Wesley had more than 37 percent of its children on the free or reduced-cost lunch program, a standard measure of family poverty. Wesley had 82 percent.

But according to those who have visited Wesley, before Lott left last year to run a cluster of charter elementary schools in Houston, the test scores don’t begin to tell the whole story. The discipline (children walk the corridors quietly and in single file), the eager learning, the purposeful noise as the children respond to teachers’ questions in choral fashion.

And he managed it all at a lower than average per-pupil cost, thanks in part to the fact that only 3 percent of Wesley students (compared with the district-wide average of 10 percent) require the services of a special-education teacher.

But there is another reason why Wesley’s per-pupil costs are low - a reason that may help explain why so few schools, in Houston and elsewhere, have rushed to adopt his method: Wesley’s teachers are young - often fresh out of college and at the bottom of the pay ladder - and, though a few have been with him for upward of a dozen years, most stay only two or three years.

Lott doesn’t quite say this during his luncheon remarks here, but the implication is clear: Most teachers don’t like having to follow a script or being told what to do in virtually every eventuality - even if following the program produces excellent results.

Lott uses DISTAR (Direct Instructional System for Teaching and Remediation), developed some 30 years ago at the University of Illinois, and a successor program called Reading Mastery and Connecting Math Concepts. Other similar programs, like one called “Success for All,” may work about as well, he says.

But here’s the problem: The most effective programs are those that require the least creativity from teachers, who must take their satisfaction not from their input but from their students’ performance.

To put it another way, direct instruction is like classical music, the successful performance of which is measured by its closeness to the composer’s instructions. An awful lot of teachers would prefer to be educational jazz artists, improvising on general themes and creating their own music.

Some teachers are very good at improvisation; many - including most of the unsuccessful teachers - aren’t.

But even the best improvisers may be inappropriate for the sort of children Thad Lott teaches. Inner-city schools, he explains, have an unusual amount of mobility among both teachers and students. “The child who may be in three different places before finishing elementary school needs the consistency of a structured curriculum,” he said.

The dilemma is that what works for students is a huge turnoff for teachers as well as for curriculum experts who are frequently seduced by “progressive” approaches: open space, ungraded primaries, whole child, whole language. Direct instruction really does sound awful.

But it works.

xxxx

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = William Raspberry Washington Post



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