Do poor kids need less learning, more play?

Direct instruction denies low-income children a carefree childhood and harms their emotional development, argues Steve Nelson, headmaster of an elite private school in Manhattan, in the Huffington Post.

Low-income children in “direct instruction” pre-schools do less well in life than those in traditional nursery schools, according to The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40, he writes. (The study followed 68 children, only one third of whom were in a direct-instruction preschool.)

Early childhood education must be “play-based and focused on social development,” writes Calhoun. “Children should explore at their own pace, negotiate relationships with other children and with adults, daydream, be silly, try things out, and try things on.”

Education reformers have created no-excuses schools that turn children into little adults forced to meet ever-higher expectations, Calhoun writes.

Are there “no-excuses” preschools, joyless academic factories that parents nonetheless choose for their children?

Nelson, the half-million-dollar mouthpiece of a $45,000-per-year private school, has descended “from Olympus to admonish teachers of impoverished students against actually trying to teach them anything,” writes Fordham’s Robert Pondiscio.

“Play-based,” content-free learning might be fine for the children of hedge fund managers, who will have lots of opportunities to screw up before easing into careers as progressive school principals. But it’s not cutting it for kids from low-income families, who often arrive at school with huge skills deficits and consequently have to, you know, learn something.

Calhoun should “stick to finger painting in the Imagination Station, and quit lecturing those who are actually trying to help the poor,” concludes Pondiscio.

A few months ago, I visited pre-k and elementary classes at a local public school that’s focused on helping children from immigrant families catch up academically by third grade. Classes were loaded with academic content. Teachers mixed directed instruction, discussion, writing, singing, dance, exploration, etc.

I was amazed at how much science these kids were learning as they developed English proficiency. They seemed to be having a lot of fun. And they were learning the normal set of social skills.

Will ‘drill and grill’ replace kindergarten play?

Rigorous new Common Core standards endanger young children by requiring “long hours of direct instruction in literacy and math” and more standardized testing, argue Edward Miller, a teacher, and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a retired early childhood education professor, on Answer Sheet.

. . .  “drill and grill” teaching has already pushed active, play-based learning out of many kindergartens.

. . .  Didactic instruction and testing will crowd out other crucial areas of young children’s learning: active, hands-on exploration, and developing social, emotional, problem-solving, and self-regulation skills—all of which are difficult to standardize or measure but are the essential building blocks for academic and social accomplishment and responsible citizenship.

There’s little evidence academic instruction in the early grades leads to later success, they write.

Miller is the co-author of Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School.  Carlsson-Paige is the author of Taking Back Childhood.

Children should play — but not with straw men, counters E. D. Hirsch, a stanch defender of Common Core State Standards. The new standards don’t dictate how teachers should teach, writes Hirsch.

Children have a lot to learn about the world, past and present. They need to learn some things as efficiently as possible—through direct instruction. But they also need opportunities to explore—through well-constructed spaces and activities that invite creative problem solving and role playing.

Some educators are misreading the new standards, writes Hirsch, citing the New York Post story on kindergarteners expected to write “informative/explanatory reports” and demonstrate “algebraic thinking.”

But the status quo isn’t good enough, he concludes.

Poverty vs. 3rd-grade reading

While high-poverty schools struggle to teach reading, some schools do much better than others, according to Education Consumers Foundation’s school performance graphs, which show third-grade reading scores correlated with the percentage of low-income students — and, in some cases, minority students. (Choose a state or city and click on “all schools” to get the scatter graph.)

“The early use of intensive, skill-focused reading instruction could enable the vast majority of at-risk children to reach grade level by third grade, argues ECF, which recommends Direct Instruction.


Progressives vs. traditionalists

My short post on a Direct Instruction book drew an anti-DI comment by Mark Barnes, which set off a passionate debate (now up to 42 comments).

A traditional teacher for many years, Barnes developed  “results-only learning,” which works well for his students, including many “reluctant learners.” In response to the comments battle here, he asks progressives on his blog: Are we losing the fight against traditional teaching?

Here’s his description of a Results Only Learning Environment (ROLE).

‘Clear Teaching’ with Direct Instruction

Shep Barbash explains how Direct Instruction works in Clear Teaching (pdf). The short book looks at Zig Engelmann’s development of DI, its “transformative” success with disadvantaged students and its rejection by the education establishment, despite research showing DI’s effectiveness.

Success for All makes a comeback

Success for All, a scripted reading program which fell out of favor in the Bush administration, is back in the money, reports the Washington Post.

IN GRASONVILLE, MD. With fingers and pencils, Destiny Wallace-Jenkins and Aiden Priest took turns prompting each other to pronounce what they saw on the page. K-i-n-g – king. S-l-a-m – slam.

“Don’t cover it up, Aiden. Let her see it,” teacher Allison Torrence said one December morning at the elementary school here. “Destiny, you get ready and point for Aiden. Okay. Put it together.”

Letters were becoming sounds, sounds were becoming words and these first-graders on the Eastern Shore were becoming readers through a program that has won a major grant from one of President Obama’s signature education initiatives. The money will help Success for All, as the program is known, expand across the country.

Success for All groups students by reading skills, letting them move to the next level as soon as they’re ready. Teachers follow a script. All possible teachers in the building, including administrators, special-ed, P.E and music teachers, handle a 90-minute literacy block. That keeps class sizes small.

Detailed descriptions of daily objectives were posted outside the rooms. Example: “Use elements of narrative text to facilitate understanding. . . . Identify and explain character traits and actions.”

Beginners, including Destiny and Aiden, paired off to help each other on the teacher’s cue. They spent half an hour on phonics and then shifted to lessons geared to stories, story telling, retelling, comprehension and thematic writing.

Teacher Debbie Sparks guided more advanced students – all fifth-graders – through analysis of a nonfiction text on dinosaurs. Students formed groups of four for “team talk” to discuss scientific theories on why the dinosaurs died out. Then they gave their findings to the class – another of many examples of the emphasis on oral language development – and were awarded points for the quality of their presentations.

Some teachers dislike the regimentation, but less-experienced teachers often like the structure.  Teachers told the Post that SFA “enables them to work directly with students for long stretches of time. That would not necessarily be the case if teachers were juggling small groups of varying ability within one classroom.”

Success for All and Direct Instruction have proven record of success in teaching reading, notes Jay Mathews on Class Struggle.  Why not go with what works, even if it’s not new and cool?

Over the past twenty years, the only reading programs I have seen that have consistently proved to be effective are Success For All and Direct Instruction, the work of two University of Oregon pioneers, Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley C. Becker, who have also been hurt by the educational practice of discarding programs that aren’t considered cool any more.

In my San Jose Mercury News days, I observed a Success for All school in San Jose that credited the program with identifying fourth- and fifth-graders who’d never mastered first- and second-grade reading skills.  Placing students in classes at their own level let them catch up — and reduced discipline problems dramatically. Kids no longer needed to keep the class disrupted so nobody would notice their inability to read, teachers said.  Other SFA schools in San Jose also reported fewer discipline problems. SFA’s structure and sense of purpose carried over for the whole day, principals told me. Teacher absenteeism fell significantly as well.

‘We know how to teach black kids’

We know how to teach black kids — and other disadvantaged students — but we don’t do it, writes John McWhorter in The Root.

Starting in 1968, a huge federal study called Project Follow Through compared different methods of teaching at-risk K-3 children:  Direct Instruction (DI), a scripted phonics program using  repetition and student participation, worked much better than anything else for all students, but especially low-income black students.  DI has continued to work where ever it’s been used, McWhorter writes.

In 2001, students in the mostly black Richmond district in Virginia were scoring abysmally in reading. With a DI-style program, just four years later, three-quarters of black students passed the third-grade reading test. Meanwhile, over in wealthy Fairfax County, where DI was scorned, the minority of black students taking that test — despite ample funding — were passing it at the rate of merely 59 percent.

But DI defies the conventional wisdom of education schools, which “keep alive the canard that teaching poor kids to read is an elusive, complex affair requiring a peculiarly intense form of superhuman dedication and an ineffable brand of personal connection with young people,” McWhorter writes. “In a better America, schools that do not use DI to teach kids from poor households should be seen as vaguely criminal. People should point them out as they drive by them, like crack houses.”

2+2 = litigation

Judges shouldn’t pick math curricula, writes Joshua Dunn, a University of Colorado political science professor, in the fall issue of Education Next.

In February 2010, a state judge overturned the Seattle school board’s decision to use the “Discovering” math curriculum. The adoption had prompted a lawsuit by a retired math teacher, a professor of atmospheric science and the mother of a high school student.

The plaintiffs argued that the curriculum would widen rather than narrow Seattle’s achievement gap between minority and white children. One of the plaintiffs, Professor Cliff Mass, wrote in his blog, “Seattle Public Schools picked high school math books that are not only bad for everyone, but they are PARTICULARLY bad for the disadvantaged who don’t have extra cash for tutoring or whose parents don’t have the time or backgrounds to help their kids.”

In February 2010, Judge Julie Spector agreed with the plaintiffs in a terse three-page opinion devoid of any analysis. She simply asserted that the district behaved arbitrarily and capriciously and that there was “insufficient evidence for any reasonable member of the board to approve the selection of the Discovering Series.”

The curriculum may be faddish and foolish, Dunn writes, but the judge was “arbitrary and capricious” in substituting her judgment for that of the school board.

While the Seattle school district is appealing Judge Spector’s decision, parents have filed suit to get the Issaquah school district to drop the Discovering series. Bellevue, another district with well-to-do and well-organized parents, faces a possible lawsuit over Discovering.

Learning from learners' mistakes

Siegfried Engelmann, a University of Oregon education professor who invented Direct Instruction, talks about learning from students’ mistakes on Children of the Code. Teachers must analyze mistakes carefully, he argues.

They’re telling you with their mistakes what you as the teacher are doing wrong. . . . you need to look at their mistakes for qualitative information about what you need to change in your instruction to teach it right.

For example, a lot of corrective reading programs try to avoid the things that give kids problems. No! The key is to teach it properly and confront it.

Many poor readers are the victims of “dys-teachia,” Engelmann says. It’s a fascinating interview.

Update: “With quality reading instruction and intervention, 98 percent of all kids can be reading at grade level by the end of 1st or 2nd grade,” says Richard Allington in EdWeek. Only 25 percent of kindergarten and first-grade teachers are highly skilled at teaching reading, Allington estimates.

Better reading with DI and SFA

Direct Instruction and Success for All work best for students, writes John Wills Lloyd at Teach Effectively, citing a meta-analysis of 142 studies in the December 2009 issue of the Review of Educational Research.

Robert Slavin and colleagues reported that reading programs that provide extensive professional development on instructional strategies which promote student participation, strengthen phonics competence, and explicitly teach comprehension strategies are the best bets for improving reading achievement.

“Comprehensive programs such as DI and SFA should be at the core of coordinated, school-wide efforts to improve students’ outcomes,” Lloyd writes.