Heroes are not Replicable

You know the plot.  Young, idealistic teacher goes to inner-city high school.  Said idealistic teacher is shocked by students who don’t know the basics and who are too preoccupied with the burdens of violence, poverty and indifference to want to learn.  But the hero perseveres and at great personal sacrifice wins over the students using innovative teaching methods and heart.  The kids go on to win the state spelling/chess/mathematics championship.  c.f. Stand and Deliver, Freedom Writers, Dangerous Minds etc.

We are supposed to be uplifted by these stories but they depress me.  If it takes a hero to save an inner city school then there is no hope.  Heroes are not replicable.

What we need to save inner-city schools, and poor schools everywhere, is a method that works when the teachers aren’t heroes.  Even better if the method works when teachers are ordinary people, poorly paid and ill-motivated – i.e. the system we have today. 

In Super Crunchers, Ian Ayres argues that just such a method exists.  Overall, Super Crunchers is a light but entertaining account of how large amounts of data and cheap computing power are improving forecasting and decision making in social science, government and business.  I enjoyed the book.  Chapter 7, however, was a real highlight.

Ayres argues that large experimental studies have shown that the teaching method which works best is Direct Instruction (here and here are two non-academic discussions which summarizes much of the same academic evidence discussed in Ayres).  In Direct Instruction the teacher follows a script, a carefully designed and evaluated script.  As Ayres notes this is key:

DI is scalable.  Its success isn’t contingent on the personality of some uber-teacher….You don’t need to be a genius to be an effective DI teacher.  DI can be implemented in dozens upon dozens of classrooms with just ordinary teachers.  You just need to be able to follow the script.

Contrary to what you might think, the data also show that DI does not impede creativity or self-esteem.  The education establishment, however, hates DI because it is a threat to the power and prestige of teaching, they prefer the model of teacher as hero.  As Ayres says "The education establishment is wedded to its pet theories regardless of what the evidence says."  As a result they have fought it tooth and nail so that "Direct Instruction, the oldest and most validated program, has captured only a little more than 1 percent of the grade-school market." 


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