May 13, 2006

Ethical Dilemmas

In the comments in the last post Chris Correa echoes a common sentiment that I want to address:
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.
Chris highlights two points that need further elaboration: 1. DI tends to be successful and 2. some teachers don't like it.

DI Tends to Be Successful

Chris states that "[DI] can be successful from some students' perspective." I'm not sure why Chris added the "from some students' perspective" qualification. DI is either successful with a student or it isn't. The student's perspective seems to be superfluous, unless Chris is implying that student learning in DI is illusory (and I don't think he is). But, the research on DI, which is extensive, does not appear to bear that out.

What the research does bear out is that DI is very successful with almost all students if the program is implemented properly. But it is neither teacher nor administrator proof.

Currently, a well implemented DI curriculum can increase student performance by up to two standard deviations. Considering that effect sizes in education on the order of 0.8 standard deviation tend to be considered large and unheard of, DI's performance is practically unparalleled.

For most children, DI is simply the most effective instructional program for learning reading and math and is often the difference between a poor or non reader and a good reader. Same goes for math.

This will be a critical distinction when we analyze Chris' second point.

Some Teachers Don't Like DI

Chris also states that "teachers often find [DI] boring or frustrating to work with." The "often" part is an overstatement, but Englemann himself has acknowledged such sentiments:
The main complaints are that the programs require teachers to follow a script, which
supposedly limits their creativity, and that the programs are boring...

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.
This is a critical distinction. Students like DI. Students learn more with DI. Many DI teachers do, in fact, like DI. But some teachers don't like DI, because they find it boring and frustrating.

Of course, this boredom mostly applies to the beginning reading instruction (depicted in the DI videos) and math programs where basic letter sound and counting skills are taught. In fact, most instruction in beginning skills (playing music, martial arts, sports) are pretty boring endeavors for the teacher and, for that matter, so is teaching reading by balanced literacy approaches. But let's assume arguendo that these bored teachers are right and that DI is marginally more boring.

Unlike other professionals who are burdened by malpractice claims, bored teachers are now faced with an ethical dilemma: teach the boring, but effective, curriculum that might result in about 5% student failures or teach the less boring curriculum that usually results in over half the students failing.

Guess which they overwhelmingly pick?

It's not a question of merely selecting the less boring alternative. In 2006, the less boring alternative is also substantially less effective teaching most children. In fact, the alternatives are so bad we had to make up a new category, "learning disabled," to describe kids of normal intelligence who still unexplainably don't learn what they're supposed to. But at least the programs are less boring for the teacher.

The lack of empathy for children is both amazing and brazen.

Could you imagine if surgeons refused to perform the effective new operation because it was boring and tedious and instead stuck with the easier operations even though they resulted in significantly more deaths? It's unimaginable. It's unimaginable because insurance companies would never allow such behavior, knowing that every patient who died would be suing.

But educators get off the hook scott free. Some even go so far to blog about their student failures, never missing an opportunity to blame the student (and often their parents) for their failure.


Anonymous said...

I have a mixed feelings about DI. I tend to like it more for the earlier grades than for the later grades. However, I would hate to see a discussion about whether DI is "the" way to fix the problems of education, rather than "a" way. I know parents who love the idea of "un-schooling", details of which vary greatly from one parent to another, but I would be the last one to argue with them (or even bring up the subject) of DI.

I do think that the problem can be posed more generally than whether DI is "it" or not. I personally like the "Core Knowledge" series because it focuses on grade-by-grade expectations of content and skills. It's not as dogmatic as DI, but it does emphasize the importance of content and mastery of skills.

Our K-8 public schools apparently do not agree with this philosophy of education. It's not just which content and skills are selected, but that it has specific content and skills at all. I've told a couple of our school committee members that they should hand out the Core Knowledge series of books and tell parents that this is not the education their kids will receive.

I suspect that many might argue about DI scripting when their real problem relates to fundamental differences in educational philosophy. I find it very strange that educational philosophy plays such a large role, but parents have absolutely no say in the matter. Schools want more parental support, but apparently that does not include the areas of assumptions and curricula. I offered to be on a Citizen's Curriculum Committee, but the committee was never formed, and the school decided to continue to use MathLand, even though the publisher dumped it years before. Schools can't have it both ways; parental support, but only on their terms.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't it keep on returning to the basic BASIC thing: we teachers are there for the students; they aren't there for us. I find that one of my most continually difficult tasks is to maintain the attitude that this career of mine is not about me or my fulfillment or my interest or my creativity. Teaching is for students.

Anonymous said...

Yay, Jeri!

I question the "bored teacher" theme.

I've taught enough to feel that teaching - including classes in which you're going to do exactly what you've done in other classes - is the exact opposite of "boring."

Teaching has a lot in common with performing and with socializing.

Do actors in a play get bored repeating the same dialogue every night?

I don't think they do. There's an adrenalin or an energy that sweeps you through a performance.

There's also a powerful social aspect to teaching that is utterly compelling.

Think about most social interactions. They ought to be boring, and yet they aren't. People say the same things to each other day in and day out, and yet we continue to want to say the same things to each other day in and day out.

My sister-in-law teaches first grade in central Illinois using Saxon's scripted curriculum. I've never heard her say she gets bored with it - I think that's because in fact she's not bored. (I'll ask this summer when I see her.)

I suspect that when you have teachers complaining about boredom they may in many cases be complaining about lack of authority over their jobs, or lack of respect. Boredom can mean a lot of things, one of them being resistance.

Anonymous said...


The thing that makes me sad about DI is that Engelmann is so solitary in his achievements.

If the ed world were oriented toward instructional design and results, as opposed to progressive ideology and inputs, all kinds of brainy, creative people would be competing with Engelmann to build a better mousetrap.

That's not happening, so he almost has the field to himself - exept for the core curriculum folks.

I think the world of DI, but I also believe that if instructional design were a thriving field we'd have all kinds of innovations that improve upon DI or create a completely different approach that works as well or better.

In her new book on the creative brain, Nancy Andreasan says that one of the main conditions for high creativity is that an artist must live in a place where there are lots of other artists.

No person interested in instructional design has that luxury.

KDeRosa said...

Steve, by the later grades DI fades out almost all of the structure characterisitc of the program and more resembles traditional instruction. Check out the third grade Reading Mastery lesson I posted. Most of the structure has already been faded.

Di's value is that it serves as a good benchmark for student achievement since it is so successful teaching. No school should be forced to use any instructional program, but whatever program they choose should get comparable results to DI, otherwise the instruction is not per se effective.

The problem with Core Knowledge is that it only sets forth a body of information that it wants kids to learn without specifying how kids are to learn it or if that amount of facts is even learnable. The schools in the Baltimore Curriculum Project are combination Core-DI schools. But, they've had much difficulty devising Core Lessons, even when using DI taching techniques, that are able to transmit all the knowledge in the Core sequence. So in this respect, Core suffers from the same defect of many other top down designed curricula--is it teachable?

Anonymous said...

"The problem with Core Knowledge is that it only sets forth a body of information that it wants kids to learn without specifying how kids are to learn it or if that amount of facts is even learnable."

I agree 100 percent.

The problem I find is that schools want to argue about the teaching methods without any real discussion of what is being learned (not just taught) and what skills are mastered, if they are mastered at all. Schools will argue about constructivist versus tradional approaches without ever admitting that the real problem of the constructivist approach is slower coverage and lower expectations. It's hard to discuss the effectiveness of teaching methods if some can't even accurately define what they want to teach, or if they see no linkage between mastery and understanding. Many complaints against DI have more to do with assumptions than effectiveness.