Heroes are not Replicable

by on September 27, 2007 at 8:20 am in Data Source, Economics, Education, Film | Permalink

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." 

1 Hopefully Anonymous September 27, 2007 at 8:39 am

This reminds me of Robin Hansen’s “drinking your own kool-aid” post. What teaching approach empirically works best to teach economics at the university level? How much of the university economics instruction market has it captured?

It’s not an idle question because it seems possible to me that better university instruction on economics fundamentals might have a stronger positive impact on our well-being than better high school instruction on the high school curriculum.

2 spencer September 27, 2007 at 8:52 am

Isn’t this much the way the Japanese and other Asian education systems work?

3 Steve Sailer September 27, 2007 at 9:20 am

When Meryl Streep shows up to make a movie, they hand her a script. But when a new teacher shows up to teach her first class, in many school districts they ask her to invent her own lesson plan. What gives?

4 Andromeda September 27, 2007 at 9:29 am

My husband pointed me here on the theory that, as I’m a teacher, I usually have long ranty comments whenever this blog touches on education. But, uh, I pretty much agree with you here.

As it happens I really hate the genre of book/movie that says “We could save education if all teachers were insanely inspired people perfectly happy to spend 80+ hours a week on a job with no cultural or institutional support, no time for friends or family (which conveniently they are too young to have), buying their own supplies out of a stupidly meager salary!” Because, yeah, that’ll work.

5 odograph September 27, 2007 at 9:43 am

My dad worked with one of those heroes (modeled in a movie). He was a great teacher, but my dad couldn’t get him to do lunch-time supervision (‘not my job’). It was hard on the school because if teachers wouldn’t do it, they had to budget temps for just lunch hour.

(I tell you that just because it is one of the things that makes me think life’s funny.)

6 Finnsense September 27, 2007 at 9:47 am

I have taught as a supply teacher in schools in Finland. We often get the highest PISA scores and yes, we basically teach from a script. That is to say that there are set materials and lesson plans and we generally stick to them. That said, there is significant freedom too for those who want it – which are usually highly motivated and experienced teachers.

This said, there is much to improve here. The system works well for the majority but it is still sad to me that the gifted, imparticular, are not well supported.

7 Phil September 27, 2007 at 9:52 am

Why should there only be one method of teaching? Maybe a DI works well on average but a good/well trained teacher should be able to see when it’s not working and adapt. I would like to see a breakdown of the data seeing which methods are good for teaching which subjects and pupils.

8 Joel W September 27, 2007 at 10:01 am

Isn’t there a dynamic effect question here? Knowing that they’d have to use DI, might we find fewer and fewer teachers?

9 Phil September 27, 2007 at 10:06 am

Joel, with DI maybe you could have bigger classes, and teachers would need less training, if that doesn’t work then increase wages.

10 Brent Buckner September 27, 2007 at 10:20 am

I keep thinking that there’s a market opportunity.

11 odograph September 27, 2007 at 10:37 am

“I personally think that we would have much better schools if the starting pay was 75k. I don’t think people realize how much teacher quality has declined since we gave women a choice for employment outside of teacher/nurse/wife.”

That was also one of my dad’s opinions, after 35 years in public schools.

12 a guy September 27, 2007 at 10:52 am

Measured on an hourly basis and considering their excellent retirement benefits most teachers are not underpaid. Oh and both of my parents were educators.

13 Alex R September 27, 2007 at 11:06 am

RobbL, I can’t channel libertarians perfectly, since I’m not one, but I think there are plenty of libertarians that would be all in favor of greatly increasing teacher salary as long as you couple that with the ability to freely hire and fire teachers, and set their salary on the basis of performance. (And the “real” libertarians might get the state out of the education business altogether…)

14 Tom September 27, 2007 at 11:14 am

“Actually the complaint that i hear from teachers is that their teaching is TOO scripted.”

That’s the same crowd who hate NCLB. Hate to actually show their students know how to read, write or add.
“Too scripted” or “having to tech the test” sound a bit like accountability to me. We’d hate to have that!

15 Tom September 27, 2007 at 11:14 am

“Actually the complaint that i hear from teachers is that their teaching is TOO scripted.”

That’s the same crowd who hate NCLB. Hate to actually show their students know how to read, write or add.
“Too scripted” or “having to tech the test” sound a bit like accountability to me. We’d hate to have that!

16 G.IRA September 27, 2007 at 11:46 am

Where does this leave the uber teachers (and their fortunate students)? If the method brings up the average success, it’s good from a utilitarian standpoint; but would there be a way of maintaining those classrooms which are exceptional? I don’t think those teachers would care much for the script.

17 Daniel Klein September 27, 2007 at 11:47 am

Fortunately, there are movies like High School High, starring Jon Lovitz.

18 Half Sigma September 27, 2007 at 11:56 am

We can start implementing the program by replacing overpaid economics professors at GMU with lower paid teachers who follow a script.

19 econ2econ September 27, 2007 at 12:05 pm

The problem with a script is that nobody can agree on it. There is already a standard curriculum for public education, which is driven by standardized testing. Not to mention, it’s boring and doesn’t encourage critical thinking. The learning experience isn’t one-way, teacher-to-student. It’s a mutual effort that requires desire from all stakeholders (teachers, parents, and the students themselves). The problem among the low-scoring population is that the stakeholders don’t feel invested. We econo-minded people know that incentives are the root of most behavior. How do we align the incentives so that the stakeholders of low performers feel invested in the outcome?

That aside, I’m a pseudo-Libertarian who is in favor of raising teacher salaries, with the qualifications that Alex pointed out (the ability to freely hire and fire teachers, and set their salary on the basis of performance). To me, that’s where the teachers unions are the obstacle.

Regardless of pay, I still think that the teaching profession requires a special kind of person. Dealing with a large group of children and teens is a nightmare for most people, and no amount of money would inspire them to do it.

20 josh September 27, 2007 at 12:11 pm

Good idea, Sigma. That way professors can focus on research.

Although, one advantage of professors as teachers is that they have much more expertise than high school teachers in their subjects.

21 M.Edwards September 27, 2007 at 12:23 pm

Wouldn’t a text book be a script?

22 lou js September 27, 2007 at 12:33 pm

Of course, those of us actually working on the chalkface think it might be a good idea to read some research about how children learn which (believe it or not) does have a direct relationship to how it might be a good idea to teach….I think the main problem with teaching is that everybody thinks they can do it – actually it is quite hard. To get it right, you do have to learn about it as well as how to do it, and you do have to make sure you are meeting the needs of all the pupils, not just the ones who respond to DI. Heroic, no but robotic, definitely not.
Some of you might want to look at this: http://www.tlrp.org/findings/Schools%20Findings/Schools%20Findings.html which is some of the latest research coming out of the UK. Of course it might all be a bit airy fairy, basically proves that direct instruction doesn’t work and – blimey!- the best way to teach children is to have a conversation with them! Radical.

23 Shakespeare's Fool September 27, 2007 at 12:51 pm

The reason Ian Ayres gives for favoring
Direct Instruciton is not a feeling,
not a theory, not a hope. It is that when
the progress of students taught with
Direct Instruction is compared to the
progress of students taught with other
methods, the students taught with
Direct Instruction are almost always
found to have done better.

It is RESULTS, not hopes, beliefs,
speculations, traditions, or
superstitions that favor Direct

There may be better methods than Direct
Instruction, but the evidence (at least
the evidence available to Ayres) shows
Direct Instruction to be the best.


P.S. The resistance to the use of
Direct Instruction could make a
fascinating series of posts on
Overcoming Bias.

24 albatross September 27, 2007 at 1:38 pm

The interesting problem here is one of incentives, not the specific question about which is the best way to teach kids. What we want is a way to give the decisionmakers (teachers, school administrators, school board members) the right incentives and the power to find better ways to teach. I have very little faith in my ability to judge between competing claims in the education literature, since that’s so far outside my own expertise. But economics is likely to give us some insights into how to structure things so that education improves.

It seems to me that public schools are subject to influence by a bunch of interest groups, and that those groups largely swamp the broad societal and parental interest in providing a good education. For example, mainstreaming of special ed kids looks absolutely nuts to me, but is pushed by a specific interest group including the parents of those kids. Teachers and other school employees have an interest in improving their salaries, job security, and working conditions. Both liberal and conservative activist groups apparently have disturbing amounts of control on the content of textbooks.

Vouchers seem likely to provide some incentive for improvements, but are politically hard to do. NCLB looks like kind of a mess. Is there a way to provide the right incentives within the public school system?

25 joan September 27, 2007 at 1:44 pm

The results of a study can be no more accurate than the standardized test used to measure the results, and such test are more accurate when testing rote learning. I have seen DI used to teach reading in early grades and it works well with most students but not all. But reading is a rote learning as is multiplication tables, but many subjects are taught for the reasoning skills they impart not the facts. Since the ability to read is needed to do well on most standardized test one would expect a correlation between a technique that teaches reading effectively any other skill tested.

26 David September 27, 2007 at 1:58 pm

So let me get this straight: There is a shortage of teachers, and a terrible shortage of competent, qualified, motivated teachers. And now they propose to reduce teaching to … what, the reciting of a script? Gee, neato! I was going to be an engineer, but damn, now suddenly I really want to teach! Oh please, let me be the one to convey the state-scripted recitation to unlock the creativity of my students! They will really learn how to think through problems when I don’t have to watch me do any independent thinking in front of them! Oh, if only we could make education more like assembly work, so many social ills – like individual diversity – would disappear…

27 John Pinkerton September 27, 2007 at 2:11 pm

The description of direct instruction reminded me of the book we used to teach our children to read, “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.” Sure enough, on Amazon.com it says one of the authors, Siegfried Engelmann, is the originator of direct instruction. You can see sample pages on Amazon.

It worked incredibly well for two of our children, who learned to read at late age 3, and age 4, respectively. Our daughter is now age 6 and starting first grade. Last week the students each brought their favorite book to show the class. During Q&A, the other kids asked, “why is that your favorite book when it doesn’t have any pictures?” The teacher asked if her mother read her the book and our daughter said no, she did.

Lessons took about 20 minutes each, so a total of about 30 hours and our kids could read. This is very scripted, yet surprisingly not boring. Perhaps that was because it worked so well so quickly. It’s fascinating to see the structure of the lessons, and all the small concepts built in. In a sense, it was more varied than the techniques I’d have used had I just pulled Dr. Seuss off the shelf or started teaching the sounds of letters. The lessons included learning new sounds, sounding out letters, rhyming, reading and guessing what would be shown in an illustration, writing the letters, etc. Also, compare doing a script interactively with a child to simply reading to them. Reading a book out loud is 100% scripted, yet not necessarily boring at all when your kid enjoys it.

Finally, having a script doesn’t prevent you from having fun and joking around while you’re doing it. When practicing writing letters, for example, my daughter liked to have me close my eyes. She’d giggle and tell me to open my eyes, and surprise me with a letter that was so large it covered the whole page or so small you could hardly see it.

28 KDeRosa September 27, 2007 at 2:27 pm

Teaching from a script is not the same as an actor reading from a script. This is because students make errors which need to be corrected, preferably immediately. When a student makes a mistake, the teacher must stop the presentation, evaluate the mistake, determine the required remedy, implement the correction, test the student to see if the remedy was successful, and then resume the presentation.

This is one reason why DI is more effective than most other method of teaching. DI approaches education as an engineering problem. The DI “script” is designed to minimize student errors, acquire a high rate of feedback from students to determine if errors are present in the student learning, and to remedy those errors as soon as they are detected. The motto is: the teacher hasn’t taught, if the student hasn’t learned.

Initially, they did not think that scripts were needed for DI, but it quickly became evident that most teachers did not have the skills needed to present the instructuional material while acquiring feedback and correcting errors. The scripts were developed so that teachers could focus on the feedback and correction steps while preseting the material. Even then it takes upwards of two years for a teacher to be able to adequately present the material to low-performing students in a way that assures they are actually learning. So, the DI script is more like a flow chart and the teacher is still required to make all the difficult decisions in order to know when to provide remedies when students aren’t learning in addition to presenting the scripted material in a lively and brisk manner that keeps the students on task and engaged

Are the scripts boring? For who? The teacher or the students? Certainly the students aren’t bored becasue bored students are inattentive, innattentive students tend not to learn, and those who don’t quickly become unmotivated to learn more. There is no hard data that shows that DI teachers are bored, but certainly some may be. (Of course, this boredom mostly applies to the beginning reading and math instruction. 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 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. We don’t really care if the surgeon is bored with permorning the same surgical procedure for the umpteenth time or the boredom. Would you rather have the surgeon peforming a scripted procedure on you that results in a 5% mortality rate or would you have the creative surgeon that does his own thing with the mean mortality rate of, say, 10%?

DI is all about quality control. That’s why DI works while almost all other teaching programs fail with the left side of the IQ curve.

29 Doug September 27, 2007 at 2:40 pm

“Where does this leave the uber teachers (and their fortunate students)?”

Writing the scripts?

30 KDeRosa September 27, 2007 at 3:34 pm

One big problem is that good education will accentuate differences in IQ, motivation, and family support, as those with more capabilities will benefit more than those without.

No, bad education will increase differences in IQ etc. Good education will decrease (but not eliminate) differences. From Applied Psychology For Teachers by Wes Becker:

The notion that IQ measures the ability to learn is challenged by the cited logical arguments (on level scores and gain scores) and the actual data. In reviewing this issue, Cronbach (1970) concluded that the “ability to learn” is not a satisfactory construct. More relevant is the question “Learning what from what instruction?” There are many kinds of learning tasks, having different prerequisite skills, that make the new learning possible or impossible. And, there are many kinds of “instruction.” He concludes: “There is a suspicion afoot that education calls for analytic ability just because the materials are capable of being put into meaningful relationships and the instruction has either failed to display the relationships or has given an explanation that is hard to follow. Then one has to use his brain!” (Cronbach 1970)

Cronbach is suggesting that the high-level analytic ability measured by IQ tests may be affecting learning in situations where the teaching is bad, in addition to situations where untaught vocabulary is required. Under poor teaching conditions, only intelligent students have a chance.

What any person can be taught depends on what he or she has already learned, as well as the methods used in instruction. If the method of instruction is lecture, and the same assignments are given [to] thirty students of highly different backgrounds, it is very likely that some will fail because they lack the preskills assumed by the teacher. In this situation, an IQ test could, in part, predict who would succeed and who would fail. If the method of instruction systematically builds upon the skills each individual brings to the educational setting and uses good motivating procedures, each student will learn to the degree that he or she is effectively taught.

The fact that human beings are products of their genetic histories does not limit what they can learn or guarantee that they will be taught. Genetic histories probably do have some influence on how well students learn, but since there is no measure of or control over the variables involved, the potential influences have no practical implications for the teacher.

31 nelziq September 27, 2007 at 3:54 pm

Ill add one more anecdotal pebble to the pile. I was a SAT instructor in college at one of the big test prep companies. They train their teachers to use the DI method. I can tell you that, as a teacher, it was pleased with the results and I enjoyed teaching using the method. As evidenced by improved test scores, it was very effective for my students as well.

32 RJ September 27, 2007 at 4:18 pm

Oh please, let me be the one to convey the state-scripted recitation to unlock the creativity of my students!

I don’t want creativity in math and spelling. I want the students to learn the right way to do it.

Creativity (for young students) is WAY over-rated.

33 Half Sigma September 27, 2007 at 5:00 pm

“admitting that Whole Language reading … may not work.”

It worked fine for me. It probably works fine for smart kids, but dumb kids benefit from the more rote learning approach of phonics.

34 shecky September 27, 2007 at 5:45 pm

Do they make lessons available on DVD? Now that’s some schooling I would have liked.

35 AO September 27, 2007 at 6:49 pm


There are 6.2 million school teachers in the US. There is absolutely no way of attracting and keeping 6.2 million talented people with, say, IQ>120 to the profession. Even if it were possible to pay teachers like MDs, who knows if high-strung overachievers would make good teachers.

So what is needed, is for people to stop having to be “creative”. Teaching middle school is not rocket science. It should be an assembly line, with a three-ring binder of best business practices. Find one really good textbook; and use it. That’s what they did in Singapore.

That won’t stop great teachers from being great. It would stop bad and inexperienced teachers from inflicting too much damage.

36 Chris Durnell September 27, 2007 at 8:09 pm

In the Middle Ages, education was conceived as a three step process.

The first was “Grammar” which meant mastering the details, and basic facts. This is the basis for our phrase “grammar school.” Next was Logic which meant piecing together the basic facts (mastered by this point) and understanding arguments. The last step was Rhetoric which was concerned with creating new arguments and expressing oneself. Each step in the chain was necessary to go to the next level.

DI looks like it works very well with the first part. Students need to learn their phonics, mathematical tables, basic historical dates and events, rudimentary science and the like. Only once they have mastered those can we expect them to be able to use them creatively. If they don’t master the basic skills, they’ll never be able to ascend.

As for issues of students and teachers being able to be creative and such, tracking will solve that problem. There will always be students with below average IQ and/or study habits that they will never master abstract thought. Send them to vocational schools were they can learn professions which don’t require abstract thought. There are plenty of good jobs there that society needs anyway. Other students can proceed at a more aggressive pace and engage in more creative tasks. That’s why Honors classes exist. As for preparing for collegiate education, this is what AP classes and other prepatory courses are for.

The DI method seems great at establishing mastery of basic skills. Not all education is about mastering basic skills. But everyone needs to do it – some can do it at a faster pace, and the school system should endeavour to identify them for higher tracking. Others will never be good at abstract thinking and should be encouraged to go to schools that can teach them the needed mastery for repetitive, but truly advanced skills that society needs. We’ll always need good machinists for example. A high skills workforce does not necessarily a mean a workforce that is uniformly good at abstract thinking. Indeed, abstract thinkers typically get bored at repetitive tasks and are more likely to make mistakes in certain jobs. And a low ability for abstract thought does not mean those students don’t have other forms of intelligence that will benefit themselves and society.

If anything, too many people go to college. Most of them will go on to jobs that do not require a college education or the expense. The only reason they do so is because we, as a society, have encouraged credentialism. If we improve basic mastery, raise standards and expand vocational training, we can probably cut down on the expense bloat of high education while producing a superior workforce.

37 jk September 27, 2007 at 8:45 pm

I’m amazed how the topic of education brings out the reactionary in many.

First, responding to Brian Curtis, the government can do a great job in education. Our state university systems are uniformly terrific. The second and third tier institutions, community colleges and the like, are doing as well or better than the elite schools. So, please don’t go on about “if only the government would let private enterprise fix this”. You mean like the private contractors in Iraq? The tail end of the Bush epoch is not a propitious time to argue for the merits of privatization.

Second, Chris Durnell argues that too many people are going to college. This, too, is wrong. Statements like “There will always be students with below average IQ and/or study habits that they will never master abstract thought” are deeply offensive and not backed by anything beyond classism and myopia. If you, Chris, are such a scholar, back it up. Where’s your data? How can you say “they will never”, a patently untestable hypothesis.

Our democracy, our economy and our societal well being depend on an educated populace. With greater will than we currently have, it can be done. Or we can retire to the country clubs and imagine our innate superiority to those who haven’t made it.

38 A. H. Paschal September 27, 2007 at 10:27 pm

In brief: I am a good teacher, a “hero” even. I would quit if forced to teach from a script. Understand that would be a trade-off of scripted instruction. There would be no more heroes. (And who was yours?)

39 Floccina September 27, 2007 at 10:43 pm

definition reactionary
“Characterized by reaction, especially opposition to progress or change.”

40 jk September 27, 2007 at 11:55 pm

Brian Curtis,

I shouldn’t have put you in the ‘reactionary’ camp. Apologies. But government run colleges have been a terrific success. The success of US higher education dates from WWII with the GI bill and radical expansion of higher ed. Most of this was picked up by the state schools. This was not a cheap program, but by all accounts it has paid off handsomely. The US higher ed system is the envy of the world and may be in part responsible for the economic boom that followed WW2. Futhermore, there is little distinction between the great private and public universities, other than tuition. There is no clear evidence that the private universities have been more innovative, other than in mechanisms for collecting bucks (see the recent controversy over “semester abroad” programs).

In terms of k-12 education, the public school movement dates back to Horace Mann. Universal education has been a tremendous achievement, although considerably more flawed than secondary education. There are no models that I am aware of for privatizing a universal education system. We are in need of new models, and we need to avoid bureaucratization. But I don’t think privatization is the answer. I live in NJ and work in NY. I’m terrifically impressed with the recent changes in the New York City public education system. One factor is the infusion of money (largely due to a city and state revenue stream from Wall Street). But other factors are willingness to experiment. A lot of this is being done on a city-wide scale and all of it is public. Don’t give up on public education yet.

Comment to eric. My reference to working in a med school has little to do with the quality of students. Of course med schools are highly selective. What I was cryptically referring to is the remarkable differences in the educational culture comparing colleges and universities with the k-12 system. I think this is mostly due to a totally independent evolution of the two systems. First, I think that both groups have a lot to learn from each other. And the learning can go both ways. But, second, its amazing how rarely the gap is crossed. How rarely a college teacher enters a high school or vice versa. They are just different worlds. And the bureaucracy reinforces the gap. A noble prize winner in biology would not be allowed to teach biology in my local high school, indeed, this hypothetical Nobel laureate would not be permitted to stand in front of a classroom without supervision, unless he/she was certified. Weird.

41 Tracy W September 28, 2007 at 5:52 am

DI probably does raise test scores, but until we get tests that measure something worth measuring, that means exactly nothing. For basic reading and arithmetic and SAT scores, sure.

How does someone perform well on a reading test without being able to read?

For chemistry and history and comp sci? Not until we’ve clearly defined what it means to be “good” at them.

Do you think that students can do well at chemistry and history and computer science without being able to read or do basic maths? I know a number of chemistry teachers who have to teach their students basic arithmetic before they can teach them chemistry, as arithmetic is rather fundamental. And the idea of being able to do history without being able to read is ridiculous.

Chemistry and history and computer science are very important topics. I have made a lot of money out of being able to program a computer over the years, and I think a knowledge of history is fundamental to being an informed voter. I am all in favour of these topics. But that doesn’t mean we can forget about reading and arithmetic.

Reading and arithmetic tests measure skills that are worth measuring. Reading and arithmetic are not merely useful in studying chemistry, history and computer science, they are useful in a million of other ways. Leaving aside academic subjects, what does an adult who can’t read or calculate do about:
– living on a tight income (budgeting skills are useful)
– negotiating a mortgage
– a letter from the local council saying they’re planning to build a sewerage plant next door
– a love letter from their darling
– a letter from the school about how to prevent head lice
– the label on the cleaning fluid about what to do if it’s accidentally swallowed
– a letter from the IRS.

Let’s focus schools on making sure all their students, bar the severely-cognitively-disabled, can read and do arithmetic. Then we’ll work on writing. After that we can start defining what it means to be good at chemistry and history and computer science.

42 Tracy W September 28, 2007 at 11:03 am

So why not develop exactly 13 curricula? Every day, a technician at a national broadcast center turns on all 13 programs. At 7:00 a.m., all students, K-12, sit down in front of their televisions and watch the scripted instruction. This could take place in a classroom or at home.

This is exactly the kind of rhetoric used by the powers that be in education, but it nicely frames a discussion of DI.


How is the technician going to be able to get responses from every kid around the country in 13 grades as to how much they have learnt? DI scripts call for the children to respond from 10 to 14 times a minute. How is your TV system going to collate all that information? How is your TV system going to revise its lessons based on the feedback from the classes?

Under DI, if children are not getting 90% of the responses right, this indicates to the teacher that they have not understood something, and the teacher must then go back and revise the lesson. The constant feedback means that the teacher knows what lesson they need to revise and precisely where they are making mistakes.

And how is your TV system going to assign children, based on their current knowledge, to which lesson they should be in the sequence? You only have 13 programmes going on, that is not enough flexibility to cope with kids who start school not knowing the meaning of the word “touch” to kids who start school already knowing how to read.

And how is your TV system going to tell the difference between a student who is answering wrong because they didn’t understand the previous lesson, and a student who is answering wrong because they are slightly deaf?

I don’t think much of your TV system. It doesn’t have any of the things that makes DI so successful.

Perhaps the problem is that the same script doesn’t work with every child. For example some children don’t do well, just because of the (imho) crazy demand that little kids sit quietly in desks for hours at a time.

Luckily DI supplies different scripts for different kids and does not demand that little kids sit quietely in desks for hours at a time.

DI relies on constant feedback from the kids. Responses from students are overall about 10 to 14 per minute. These consist of a mixture of group responses and individual responses. Therefore DI kids are not quiet.

Games are also included in DI lessons as part of the practice of key skills.

The main way different scripts are provided to different kids is by varying their placement in the lesson plan. Kids are continually tested on their levels of comprehension. If a kid is consistently getting questions wrong they are moved back a few lessons. If a kid is consistently getting things right first time they are moved forward a few lessons.

The scripts may not provide the absolutely perfect education for every single child. There is certainly room for future improvement. But the number of children who successfully learn using DI is far higher than the numbers where teachers are free to use whatever method they like. Giving a teacher freedom to teach doesn’t help if the teacher has never been taught successful ways in the past. Some teachers figure it out for themselves, but judging by current educational results most teachers don’t.

What if school performance doesn’t matter?

We could save billions by shutting every school down.

Then if scripted education is efficient, why not to develop software instead of teachers, so the problem of prestige is solved?

Teaching is a more complicated job than that. The teacher must continually keep an eye on the class, and be aware to all the subtle signs that a student is not paying attention. The lessons may be scripted, but that frees up the teacher’s mind to pay attention to non-scripted problems in the children’s behaviour. How would your computer programme identify if a child’s problems are being caused by a hearing problem and not by a failure in the lesson? How would you teach the children to interact with the computer in the first place? What would your computer programme do if a sparrow flew into the classroom? Vision is a significant problem in IT, how would your computer programme be capable of keeping its eyes on all the students to see that they are paying attention?

And how would your computer programme cope with unexpected questions from children (every parent and teacher of young children has some doozies of questions). Scripted curriculum is not the same as mindless curriculum.

On the other hand, if you want a dynamic and creative population, its better to treat each child as exceptional and tailor their educational experience to fit their individual qualities and needs. It takes more resources, but education, after all, is an investment.

This is a puzzling statement. Which children don’t need to learn to read and write and do basic maths? Can you please provide names?

In my experience, reading and writing and basic maths are useful to everyone. What they supply are basic tools that can be used to communicate creativity and new ideas. Because I can read I can read Shakespeare’s beautiful use of language. I can read books that make fireworks go off in my brain. And I can write to my friends with new ideas I’ve encountered.
Maths is of course an incredibly useful tool for problem-solving. I have creatively solved questions with maths I doubt I could have been able to otherwise (eg, how far away was the horizon we could see at the top of Kapakapanui?)

The most famous creative and dynamic people in history have been able to read and write and do basic maths. Have you read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography? Or a print of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks? Einstein could read and write and do more than basic maths, but that didn’t prevent his creativity.

It really surprises me how little value some people on the Internet place on reading and writing and basic maths.

43 Massimo September 28, 2007 at 12:26 pm

From the Wikipedia article on Direct Instruction:

“Direct instruction is a general term for the explicit teaching of a skill-set using lectures or demonstrations of the material, rather than exploratory models such as inquiry-based learning.”

“Direct instruction may be ad hoc or even an incidental digression. Although there is usually some element of frontal instruction and a general concept of the skill or lesson, there may or may not be a formal lesson plan.”

This sounds completely different than what this post is about: tightly scripted and controlled instructions methods.

44 KDeRosa September 28, 2007 at 12:54 pm

That’s the definition for (little-d) direct and (little-i) instruction. We’re talking about big-D Direct big-I Instruction which are programs developed mostly by Siegfried Engelmann (zigsite.com) that have the large research base alluded to in Alex’s initial post.

Here’s the correct Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_Instruction

Just because an instructional program is consistent with the definition of direct instruction, doesn’t mean the program is any good, script or no script. In contrast, Direct Instruction is a specific form of direct instruction that does happen to work and has a research base of thousands of students, usually very poor ones, that proves it.

Hopefully, that clears things up.

45 Mike Megargee September 28, 2007 at 3:37 pm

A day later, it’s clear to me that half the readers don’t understand what’s meant by “scripted”. I don’t know of anybody advocating a system where every teacher must read _exclusively_ from a script. The scripted approach I have seen, which works, is providing a clear set of objectives, general activities, assessments, and timelines based on best practices and accepted standards of what students should know when they complete the class. For science and math, this works extremely well if the agreed-upon plan is carefully constructed. I make no warranty as to its success in the arts.

And in no way should this approach be construed as “making teaching automatic”. An inexperienced teacher could probably take our material and do an acceptable job. In no way would he be able to get the results I can get. There’s no substitute for being able to assess and dynamically respond to students’ actions, questions, motivations, distractions, gaps in knowledge, etc. To me, that’s a full time job. The difference is that I no longer have an additional full-time job– that of developing material that should have been developed by previous generations of teachers.

46 robertdfeinman September 28, 2007 at 5:28 pm

Stuart Buck:
Perhaps you can find some figures on per student spending when adjusted for inflation. Along with this it would be nice to see some breakdown of how the money is being allocated.

For example, there has been a sharp rise in the amount spent on special education, especially for the handicapped. Providing a full-time signer for a deaf student, for example, would never have been contemplated in the 1960’s. There have been many cases of small school districts trying to restrict services to children with special needs. In a typical case one student might cost $100K per year compared with $8-10K for the average student.

Society has made a decision to treat these cases better than they were in the past. I think this a good thing, but it does raise the overall cost. It can be seen as another example of schools being called upon to take on social services.

I also mentioned the transition to high tech classrooms. This required an sudden increase in spending as schools were wired for internet access and a continuing expense as new equipment replaces the old. New computers cost more than new textbooks. Apparently society things this expense is worthwhile. Does it improve education outcome? This gets back the original question. What is the correct measurement for success?

As I said, an informed discussion of the issues will require better data. Perhaps some explicit discussion of the new roles expected of schools is also in order. Apparently lots of people don’t agree with the tasks, or haven’t given it much thought.

47 jk September 29, 2007 at 12:16 am

Educational spending.

Refering to the chart Stuart Buck refers to (I cant figure out how to make the link).
Notice that annual educational spending is about $9000 per kid. Looks high, doesn’t it?

Andover, Bush’s alma mater and a fine school, has an annual tuition of $37,000.

Private college education costs approximately what Andover costs.

Westchester county schools average about $19,000/pupil, and the peak district is in the high $20s.

New York City is getting great public school results and is spending in excess of $9000/student –> $13,700/student.

Education costs.

48 Cal September 29, 2007 at 4:32 am

I’m a part-time instructor for the profitable one of the Big Two and teach all the major tests except the MCAT.

I’m not convinced one way or the other on DI. Yes, test prep companies use DI, but that’s primarily for the short-term teachers. Test prep companies hire smart people for cheap; turnover is probably 90%. The better companies want to be sure of at least a minimal score improvement, so they create a script. Beginning teachers read religiously from the text; experienced teachers ignore it almost entirely. The schedule is the main exception; as any student can come to any class for a makeup session, the published session should be the one taught. However, I often vary that as well when I think it’s needed (eg, covering all of Geometry, Rates, Averages, and Percentages in one night. Not.)

DI works well for test prep. With a complete incompetent reading the text, motivated students will still see large gains, and most of the rest will improve at least a small amount. With a better teacher, you get more improvement across a larger range of students.

So if that’s what DI turns out to be, I’m probably for it. Ideally, this approach would eliminate all or most teacher qualifications–the test prep industry shows, after all, that even novice teachers with nothing more than a high test score can produce improvements.

The problem, of course, is that 1) teacher unions won’t tolerate it; 2) no one will ever agree on the script, 3) sorting students by ability will result in a politically unacceptable racial distribution, 4) the best teachers will still go to the best schools, the last two of which will give people cover to complain about the inevitable 5) results will still demonstrate a huge racial performance gap.

49 robertdfeinman September 29, 2007 at 11:22 am

Stuart Buck:
I don’t understand the Hoover study. Furthermore Hoover is not noted for objectivity. I don’t know the relevance of private special ed placements. I think this is a strawman which is why they don’t find any significant impact.

The kind of special services I’m referring to take place within the context of the regular public school. In one case I know of a blind child had two aids to assist her. One to read the text book and transcribe answers and another to translate things into and out of Braille. Children with cerebral palsy who are wheel chair bound may require a full-time aid to help them perform daily tasks.

The implication of criticism from the right (here’s the opening from the Hoover paper):

…why educational achievement remained stagnant over the past three decades while real education spending more than doubled

is that the public schools are at fault because they don’t provide “choice” and that better outcomes would be achieved if there was more competition, especially if public funds could be redirected towards other schools. This is what is behind things like the voucher movement. Good quality studies, which adjust for the demographic makeup of the students have failed to show that alternative schooling works better.

So, let’s flip the question around, “where has the added spending gone”? Apparently you don’t think my list of expenses provides the answer. For reference I’ll summarized them again:

1. Slightly higher teacher salaries (average starting salary nationwide is still only about $30K. Here’s some data about median salaries:

2. An increase in the social services that schools are required to perform. I mentioned special ed, but there are also health and nutrition services, drug and pregnancy counseling. The schools get these added tasks because they interact with this population (kids) and this makes it a good point of contact to supply the services. Is it “education” in the 3-R’s sense? No. So what.

3. A transition to modern technology. This means internet access, computers, electronic whiteboards, multimedia classrooms and other high tech additions. Parents demanded this and congress agreed in order that kids will be competitive workers when they complete their schooling.

If you don’t think that these are the primary reasons for cost increases than what are?

I also disagree with the “stagnant” characterization. The composition of the student body has changed. There are many more immigrants now then 40 years ago and averaging in their proficiency with others gives a distorted picture. As I said before we have two school systems, one for the well off and one for the poor. The well off have no complaints about the type of education their public schools provide. The poor schools are underfunded and required to deal with a more difficult to teach population.

So, where is the money being wasted?

50 Tracy W September 29, 2007 at 3:19 pm

Also, there is the issue of segregating students based on their abilities that wouldn’t be swallowed easily.

When Direct Instruction has been tested parents are accepting of this. (Also, note, students are not “segregated”. They are placed in the lesson sequence according to their prior knowledge. They are not forbidden from associating with students in other stages of the lesson plan, and one student may well be at one lesson in reading and at another in maths.)

51 B September 29, 2007 at 5:48 pm

This posting begs the question of who writes “the script” that teachers follow in our classrooms? Additionally, how is one script supposed to fit the impoverished, the learning disabled, the linguistically diverse, the apathetic, the bound and determined especially considering that one child in a classroom can dynamically transition from anyone of these to another.

A script doesn’t make decisions as the conditions within a classroom change. The reason why a DI (direct instruction) has, according to the posting, been a successful model of teaching throughout history is because none of these models in history made an effort to educate EVERYONE. They educated the rich, the powerful, the boys, the royal. Here we promise a free and APPROPRIATE education for all, and that means taking into account the diversities of language, culture, background, and community dynamics of students.

A script, one script cannot do that.

52 Shakespeare's Fool September 30, 2007 at 10:03 pm

My thanks to the people who made these posts:
Rob Sperry at Sep 27, 2007 12:07:09 PM
Patty P at Sep 27, 2007 1:53:36 PM
John Pinkerton at Sep 27, 2007 2:11:38 PM
dickey45 at Sep 27, 2007 2:24:30 PM
KDeRosa at Sep 27, 2007 2:27:01 PM
nelziq at Sep 27, 2007 3:54:05 PM
Phoebe at Sep 27, 2007 6:16:26 PM
Tracy W at Sep 28, 2007 11:03:55 AM
KDeRosa at Sep 28, 2007 12:54:21 PM
Cal at Sep 29, 2007 4:32:53 AM
Tracy W at Sep 30, 2007 6:22:21 PM

Your reports of your successes with
Direct Instruction have added greatly
to this discussion.

You have improved my understanding
and appreciation of Englemann’s methods.

Thank you,


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54 Ryan Howard October 1, 2007 at 7:30 pm

DI instruction, hmm. I will contend that the though of teaching by script is a method which seems counterintuitive. Certainly I am not the only one who has heard that saying, “What is good for everyone, is good for no one.”

Without debate, the United States has fallen behind in education. How is it possible that “superpower” country of the world be behind in education? Well, that is another story for another day, but I challenge anyone to debate that the US is doing all that it can to educate is youngest citizens.

My contention is simply this, why not give DI a try. Obviously, we have not been reaching out mark when it comes to education. Why not give a backward idea a shot. After all, was the though of democracy a majority opinion before the US won its independence? (it was the only example I had, sorry)

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