Education Letter to the Editor

Direct-Instruction Tale Draws Mixed Reviews

September 22, 2004 3 min read
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To the Editor:

I was disappointed to read the recent Commentary by Dennis Baron (“The President’s Reading Lesson,” Sept. 8, 2004). Mr. Baron may or may not know something about reading instruction, but he knows nothing about what the president should do in a situation such as the one President Bush found himself and the nation in on Sept. 11, 2001.

It has been well established that President Bush did not want to overreact to news of the second plane’s hitting the Twin Towers, so as not to alarm the children in the Florida classroom where he was observing a lesson. Mr. Baron apparently has never been in an administrative position, because he did not recognize that the president in fact handled the situation correctly: Do not alarm the classroom. Do not overreact. Wait until all information is available and then act.

Mr. Baron seems to have a badly hidden political agenda, and it is unfortunate that Education Week agreed to publish his Commentary.

Don Call

Strafford School District

Strafford, Mo.

To the Editor:

As a researcher, mentor, and college instructor, I have watched direct-instruction programs leach the joy, spontaneity, and meaningful learning experiences out of students and teachers alike. And like Dennis Baron, I have witnessed the loss of critical thinking in the classroom.

Last year, I mentored a third-year teacher in Washington, Ms. L., who was filled with enthusiasm, dedication, and high expectations for her students when I met her. Then she was presented with a direct-instruction program, and reading time became a mindless bore for her. At first, she worked to include extra materials and strategies, such as role-playing and asking higher-order questions. But as I visited her classroom throughout the year, I noticed a steep decline in these nonscripted encounters and a corresponding decrease in the teacher’s enthusiasm and the students’ thoughtful participation.

Ms. L. began to talk about getting out of teaching because it wasn’t stimulating anymore. Most disturbing was a conversation we had that began with my pushing her to get out of the direct-instruction rut and get back to the creative lessons she used to have before direct instruction. Following is my paraphrase of our conversation:

“I really hate my direct-instruction program, but the kids are learning to read,” Ms. L said.

“They can sight read, but do they have any comprehension? Have they been developing higher-level thinking skills?,” I responded.

“Well, they don’t get tested on comprehension, inferences, and those types of skills until the 3rd grade,” she said, “and that’s when the program starts to work on that. So I don’t need to worry about that.”

In his Commentary, Mr. Baron wrote, “There’s less chance for teachers or students to fail [with direct instruction], but there’s also less opportunity for them to excel.” Here was a classic illustration of that fact. A teacher who had pushed her students to think and connect the classroom to the rest of their world was, as she put it, “becoming bored” and thus disinterested in teaching. She went through the motions and tried to maintain a facade of excitement for her students. Yet, she did not have to be fully present in her room anymore because every reading day was basically the same drill with a different letter sound or “Dick and Jane"-type story.

If this slow decline into mediocrity had continued, the District of Columbia public schools would have lost a gifted teacher; the students would have continued to decode, but few would have found a joy for lifelong reading and learning; and the cycle of inadequate critical thinking would continue.

Thankfully, Ms. L. had the support of a mentor and a teacher-training organization to add creative lessons to the direct-instruction program. She added supplemental stories, and projects throughout the day that touched on some of the same topics as the commercial program, and asked more complex questions than those dictated by the direct-instruction manual.

I shudder to think, however, about the multitude of teachers who are beaten down by the robotic standardization of the modern-day classroom and the immeasurable detrimental consequences for the students who have only learned to chant, memorize, and passively accept what is presented to them.

If, instead of lowering the bar for teachers to the lowest common denominator of basic reading mechanics, we raised the bar to incorporate creative, meaningful, thought-provoking lessons, we would have a cohort of graduates prepared to read, comprehend, think, and engage the world around them.

Deborah Taub

Center for Inspired Teaching

Washington, D.C.

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