May 9, 2006

Response to "No end to Clayton teacher brain drain"

This article appeared at Edspresso earlier today.

No end to Clayton teacher brain drain-- The Atlanta Journal-Constitution confusingly reports that Georgia’s Clayton school district’s change to Direct Instruction (DI) this year is to blame for its substantial loss of teachers. Yet a few paragraphs down we learn that the teacher loss has been ongoing for at least three years.

“Clayton County had the highest turnover rate for regular teachers among metro school districts between the 2003 and 2005 school years, statistics show”

How does a change in curriculum this year cause losses in previous years? Perhaps something else is causing the losses? We'll never know because the article jumps right to a disgruntled teacher who claims to be leaving because DI is “too scripted” and that she “no longer uses her expertise to assess students individually and tailor lessons to their weaknesses.”

Our intrepid reporter fails to catch the inconsitency in the teacher's claim. The “teaching expertise” the teacher is referring to was resulting in a large number of students who were failing academically. That’s why the district changed to DI. Ironically enough, considering she hates scripts so much, this teacher appears to be following the same script we get from other critics of DI.

According to Zig Engelmann, the creator of DI, “The main complaints are that the programs require teachers to follow a script, which supposedly limits their creativity, and that the programs are boring.” But, these claims have not been substantiated by research. “Good teachers become superior DI teachers. Although the program may be boring for some teachers, it is not for the students. The rate of misbehavior is a lot lower during the structured DI periods than it is during less structured times of the school day.”

And, there are many good reasons why DI uses scripts instead of allowing teachers to teach in the same manner which previously wasn’t working with many students. The scripts are based on extensive research regarding student retention, and every aspect of every script is based upon results that were demonstrated through research. The great advantage of this approach is that every teacher using the script becomes the beneficiary of that research and will probably teach much more effectively than if left to her own devices.

We next learn that this disgruntled teacher “has a master's degree and has taught reading for 14 years." This is an appeal to authority without any authority. To find out what a teacher has actually taught, you have to look at what the students have actually learned. But, the reporter doesn't give us any statistics on student learning in this district. And I don't trust the inflated scores on the Georgia state test to be a reliable indicator of student success. The only thing I can vaguely find approaching a standard, though it is rife with selection bias, is that the high school students are performing over a 100 points below the national average in the SAT, even though only about half the students took the tests. No doubt these were the smart ones.

Another teacher also considered leaving because of DI and claimed that teachers “don't feel they are getting respect… We don't have any input on anything."

And, there we have the real reason for the discontent: teachers aren’t being permitted to continue what they’ve always done even though it was resulting in lots of academic failure. It’s all about the teachers and their precious feelings, not whether the students are actually learning.

At this point the article gets around to telling us the reason why the administrators brought DI in. “Administrators said they were trying to bring research-based methods into the classroom and standardize lessons so children who changed schools midyear didn't get lost." The new approach also ensured that lessons built on each other from year to year.

Seems reasonable enough to me, especially considering the high mobility rates (upwards of 25%) in these districts.

Then we finally hear from a teacher who liked DI. "I would base my 34 years of experience on saying that it does work." I suppose that counts for something, but wouldn't it be a little more persuasive to hear from an administrator or teacher from a school that successfully implemented DI. How about the City Springs School in the inner city of Baltimore.

In 1998 the city springs school was the worst school in Baltimore City, which is quite an accomplishment considering the general wretchedness of the schools in Baltimore City. CTBS/TerraNova scores for the fifth grade were 14th and 9th percentile for reading and math respectively. Then they changed the curriculum to DI and five years later the scores improved to 87th and 79th percentile respectively. That's about as good as it gets.

The principal of the City Springs School has said “It bothers me that the critics say, ‘Oh, Direct Instruction, so robotic.’ It’s what you make it.” Whether a curriculum is engaging to pupils and helps them learn depends on how teachers teach it. “Any curriculum can be boring to a kid,” she said. “If you give the kid motivation—that they are achieving—you’ve got them.”

Who would you rather have teaching your kids?

11 comments:

TangoMan said...

You don't provide much material to contest so I'll just chime in with a "good job" and "I'm reading your posts even if I'm not commenting."

I'm glad I found your blog.

KDeRosa said...

Hi tangoman, I take that as a very good sign.

Catherine Johnson said...


Pointe South Elementary teacher Louise Toombs said she also considered leaving because of Direct Instruction, but decided to stay because she liked her principal. Overall, teachers don't feel they are getting respect, she said.

"We don't have any input on anything," said Toombs, a fifth-grade reading teacher who began teaching in Clayton in 1998.


This actually is a problem.....which we see here, too.

I've made a bit of headway through Ouchi's book (UCLA management guy)...IIRC it's taken as a given that the reason we have teacher's unions - and fact need teacher's unions - is to protect teachers not from parents but from bad administrators.

I don't know anything about management reform, etc, and obviously I'm a fan of DI.

But this kind of talk is always bad.

If you've got teachers feeling they have no respect & no input, you've got teachers who are in all likelihood going to be sabotaging the Exciting New Reform being imposed top down.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ken,

Just checking to see if I can post. Blogger didn't like any of my names.

Anonymous said...

That was SusanS checking in.

Love your blog, but miss you over at KTM.

jg said...

any chance we could get a look at one of these scripts for DI? I have very little knowledge and am curious what they would look like. It is hard to form an opinion of whether or not it is boring and robotic if I've never seen one. thanks.

KDeRosa said...

I posted a sample script from a lesson from Reading Mastery III here with my explanation of what's going on in the lesson.

This lesson would be taken in first grade for above average kids who completed the Reading Mastery Fast Cycle Course in K. Below average kids would take it in second grade if they had full day K. Adjust accordingly for half day K.

Let me know what you think.

Chris C. said...

There are video clips available at the DI site. Reading through a script and watching a few minutes of video will give you a good idea of how the program can be successful from some students' perspective and also why teachers often find it boring or frustrating to work with.

jg said...

That does help me at least see the idea. I'll admit that it is still hard for me to grasp because I teach high school math so I can't even begin to figure out what an effective elementary reading lesson looks like. I can definetly see how it could feel boring for a teacher. I teach the same class three times a day and I'll be the first to admit that I'm bored by the time I do the lesson for the third time.

I do like the consistency of instruction you would get across the board regardless of the teacher. I know at my school how 3 different teachers teaching the same subject can get vastly different results from students.

Has any research been done on this about how to implement such a program? By this I mean I could see students that had been brought up in this system responding very positively to this style because there is consistency each year between teachers where with our current systems some students may find one teacher or another "better" so they work harder for them. With a consisten style I would think this is less likely to happen. My question/concern is I could see MAJOR problems if I tried to implement such a curriculum in my 10th grade class if they had been taught in the "traditional" style for the previous 9 years I could see them rebelling and it beinig a very difficult situation.

I have to say I am more intrigued by the idea then I was originally although I'm still some what skeptical. I'll have to do some more reading.

Anonymous said...

Clayton's problem is that there is increasing violence in their schools and teachers are becoming afraid to stay there. Yeah, that was glossed over, all right! No one can learn when the schools are out of control.

KDeRosa said...

jg, most of the structure in DI is faded out by the later grades, so instruction more resembles traditional instruction. The DI philosophy is basically teach clearly and in a logically flawless manner, teach all preskills needed before tecahing today's lesson, provide sufficient distribued practice so students can master the material, make sure that stuednts are mastering the material.

I don't know of any commercially available high school level DI math programs, however, a good teacher can make up his own. I'd recommend:

1. Reading over Engelmann's Student-Program Alignment and Teaching to Mastery to learn what mastery learning is.

2. Picking up a copy of Designing Effective Mathematics Instruction to see how lessons are to be designed in an elementary math program, this will also help with some beginning topics in your courses and remediation.

3. Pick up some of the later texts (Levels D, E, and F) (used) for Connecting Math Concepts to see how they set up lessons and deal with distributed practice.