F A I L I N G
Siegfried Engelmann developed an amazingly effective method
G R A D E
of teaching. Why don't you know his name?
Mr. Nadler is editor of K.C. Jones Monthly, a Midwestern journal of opinion.
F A I L I N G
Siegfried Engelmann developed an amazingly effective method
WESLEY Elementary School in Houston has all the demographic markers of school failure. It is located in the inner city, and its student body is 92 per cent black and 7 per cent Hispanic; 82 per cent of the school's students qualify for subsidized lunches, triple the rate at Houston's top dozen schools. Yet Wesley Elementary ranks among them. Its first-graders place in the 82nd percentile in reading tests, 50 percentiles higher than their counterparts at most schools with similar proportions of ``at-risk'' kids.
Wesley principal Thaddeus Lott has a potent weapon against failure: the Direct Instruction curricula designed by Siegfried Engelmann. In education, a 10-percentile rise in standardized-test scores is called a ``major effect.'' Such results are rare. Engelmann's Direct Instruction methods in reading, writing, and math regularly hike scores 30 to 40 percentiles. And he will never be forgiven for it.
Engelmann is a pariah in educational circles not because he grooms like a biker, dresses like a farmer, and curses like a sailor, though all those things are true. Nor are his methods shunned because he isn't part of the academic guild, although his only degree is a B.S. in philosophy from the University of Illinois. He is an outcast because for thirty years, he has succeeded by defying all the fashionable theories of educational reform.
These theories take as their starting point the collapse of the common-school ideal that molded public education in the nineteenth century. This held that students of diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds could acquire fundamental skills in a shared classroom environment. Today, a shared culture is no longer held by education theorists to be a desideratum. And in the real world, the social scourges of family breakdown, crime, and adolescent promiscuity have interrupted the transmission of knowledge and values across generations. The result in the classroom is a meltdown of standards, both behavioral and academic.
Present-day educational theorists have responded to this crisis by either abandoning the common-school ideal or setting preconditions to it. ``We will educate the children,'' they promise, ``but first we must . . .'' Redistribute wealth and change attitudes, say liberals. Introduce competition and restore the family, say conservatives.
For thirty years, Engelmann has scorned these ideological prerequisites to education reform and treated educators as directly responsible, here and now, for the quality of their product. His interest in education began through advertising, the field on which he thought he had settled in the late 1950s.
Exploring psychological literature on behalf of clients who marketed to kids, he recognized a dearth of research on how children learn. ``I wanted to see what kind of input it took to induce retention, and what the range of individual difference was,'' Engelmann recalls. He initiated child focus groups for test marketing, using his own pre-school twins, Owen and Kurt, plus the children of neighbors and co-workers.
Education soon replaced advertising as his obsession. In his spare time, Engelmann, working with his sons, outlined sequences of instruction that would form the kernel of his later curricula: skills communicated with logical precision in discrete, child-sized bits; careful measurement of mastery; rapid correction of mistakes; strict schedules; an early emphasis on phonics and computation; and incessant review to integrate old skills with new. In the early 1960s, Engelmann sent home movies to educational institutions demonstrating his math-teaching techniques. His toddlers performed computations typical of upper primary students, as well as simple linear equations.
After decades of refinement, and with help from colleagues first at the University of Illinois and later at the University of Oregon, Direct Instruction (DI) is now a detailed package of educational tools: curricula, classroom management procedures, teacher-training techniques, assessment devices, and quality controls. It was designed for mass replication. It does not require super-disciplinarians like Joe Clark or charismatic leaders like Jaime Escalante. It requires neither a cooperative village of committed adults, nor even a supportive two-parent family at home. From its earliest days, DI was shaped to succeed in the educational killing fields of urban America.
It worked. It raised student IQs by training children early to apply logical distinctions to new materials. It worked well with children who were at, below, or above the norm for their grade. It accommodated both accelerated programs and remediation. It fostered classroom discipline from the earliest ages. The package, implemented systematically in grades K - 3, proved so potent that even when it was abandoned after the third grade it still had measurable, statistically significant effects on high-school graduation and college acceptance -- an advantage of at least 10 percentiles.
But at the same time that Engelmann was developing techniques to eradicate school failure, America's schools of education were developing new theories to justify it. Followers of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget taught that children underwent developmental sequences, or cognitive ``stages,'' regardless of their instruction. Failure to learn indicated not a deficiency in teaching but a mistake in timing: the child had not yet reached the appropriate stage. The contrast between this and Engelmann's slogan -- ``If the student hasn't learned, the teacher hasn't taught'' -- could not have been more stark. So, too, the contrast in teaching methods: where Engelmann wanted teachers to direct instruction from one lesson to the next in a fixed time period, Piagetians told them to facilitate the child's self-discovery.
As educators flocked to the Piaget model, textbook publishers and education schools showed no interest in Engelmann's freakish success. He had to enter the nation's educational debates through a small back door. While Engelmann did not subscribe to behavioral psychology, the behaviorists were interested in his work because they too opposed Piaget. The behaviorists advanced his career, but fixed it in a posture of dissent.
DIRECT Instruction's elevation from an academic cubbyhole to the national stage occurred in 1968. The Nixon Administration's Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) was promoting education as the alternative to welfare. In conjunction with the Office of Education, OEO funded a competition to discover the ``best practices'' for teaching disadvantaged primary-school students. This billion-dollar project, called Follow Through, became the largest controlled comparative study of pedagogical techniques in human history, involving tens of thousands of students in hundreds of school districts across the country.
In addition to Engelmann's Direct Instruction, participating school districts could choose from a variety of other models -- Piagetian psychology, open classrooms, extended Head Start, whole- language immersion, self-esteem training, even strict behaviorism. The sponsors of the project were a virtual Who's Who of America's educational elite, and they helped pick the tests that would determine which method best advanced reading comprehension, reasoning with numbers, understanding of mathematics, and ``affective skills'' such as self-esteem and attitudes toward learning.
Eighteen school districts -- some rural, some urban, some on Indian reservations -- applied DI, despite the resistance of many school administrations. When the testing was over, students in DI classrooms had placed first in reading, first in math, first in spelling, and first in language. No other model came close. Many of the others underperformed the control groups. DI even defeated the developmental and affective models on their own turf: DI students also placed first in self-esteem. Apparently children who mastered reading, writing, and math felt better about themselves than those who did not. Direct Instruction, the invention of a pitchman, an uncredentialed psychologist, had defeated the pet programs of the experts.
Engelmann na´vely waited for the newborn Department of Education to declare him the winner, and apply the ``best practices'' it had been at such expense to locate. But the achievements of mavericks from ad agencies and psychology departments were unacceptable to the education establishment on any terms. The Ford Foundation financed a major paper to denigrate the results of Follow Through. Over the objections of Commissioner of Education Ernest Boyer, the new Department of Education inaugurated what it called ``joint dissemination'' of the results: by advocating all models, including ones that performed worse on all counts than the control groups, it effectively advocated none. And without the project's funding, recalls Engelmann, ``We watched what we had spent years cultivating in sites like Providence, Rhode Island, and Smithville, Tennessee, revert to the weed patch from which it sprang.''
DI fell on even harder times in the mid Eighties, an accidental victim of the Reagan-era push for higher state standards. The education establishment adopted the language of standards to promote policies like ``outcomes-based education'' and ``performance-based assessments'' which actually destroyed the testing systems that had documented the establishment's failure. It became impossible to compare teachers or methods of instruction based on their results.
And states' centralization of education allowed the establishment to crush local efforts to implement DI. In California, where DI was strong, the state Board of Education under Commissioner Bill Honig took it off its list of approved curricula. Textbook publishers won't touch a product banned in California (or Texas), so the defeat there devastated DI everywhere. California, meanwhile, went from having one of the highest-rated school systems in the nation to one of the lowest.
Honig is now celebrated as a reformer, a favorite of no less an educational authority than Lamar Alexander. National publicity for Engelmann's work, on the other hand, consists of the article you are now reading. In public education, nothing succeeds like failure.
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