GaryStager on Direct Instruction

GaryStager on Direct Instruction

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Perhaps it's time to end political social promotion

Michael Moore got it wrong. In his fi lm, Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore shows President Bush in a Florida classroom on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The fi lm's narration said that while America was being attacked, the president read the book, My Pet Goat, to a room full of young children. This is factually inaccurate in three important ways.

1) The story is actually titled, The Pet Goat.

2) It is not a book, but an exercise in a heavily scripted basal.

3) The president did not read the story to the children.

Reagan might suggest we ask ourselves, "Is your school better off than four years ago?"

Any perceptive educator watching this would quickly realize what was going on. The president was not in that classroom to demonstrate his love of reading. Being read to is a powerful literacy experience. Having a wonderful story read to you by the president of the United States could create a memory to last a lifetime.

Unlike his wife, mother and Oval Offi ce predecessors, this president had a more important agenda than demonstrating affection for children or for reading. The trip was part of a calculated campaign to sell No Child Left Behind. In what Michael Moore rightly observed as a photo opportunity, young children were used as props to advance the administration's radical attack on public education.

The Pet Goat is an exercise from a literary classic called, Reading Mastery 2, by the father of Direct Instruction, Siegfried (Zig) Engelmann. In the 1960s, Engelmann invented a controversial pedagogical approach that reduces knowledge to bite-sized chunks presented in a prescribed sequence enforced by a scripted lesson the teacher is to recite to a classroom of pupils chanting predetermined responses. Every single word the teacher is to utter, including permissible and prohibited words of encouragement, are provided. There is no room for individuality. The Direct Instruction Web site states, "The popular valuing of teacher creativity and autonomy as high priorities must give way to a willingness to follow certain carefully prescribed instructional practices."

Engelmann told The New Yorker in its July 26 issue, "We don't give a damn what the teacher thinks, what the teacher feels. On the teachers' own time they can hate it. We don't care, as long as they do it. Traditionalists die over this, but in terms of data we whump the daylights out of them." It is easy to see how a man of such sensitive temperament could author more than 1,000 literary masterpieces such as The Pet Goat.

While I am sure the Florida school visited is a fi ne one and the classroom teacher loves children, educational excellence was not being celebrated. This was a party on behalf of Direct Instruction. While Moore made a documentary-some suggest artful propaganda-about the Iraq war, he could have made a movie about the United States government's ideological attack on the public schools.

The War on Public Education

Engelmann's publisher is a textbook giant with ties to the Bush family dating back to the 1930s. Company namesakes served on George W. Bush's transition team and the board of his mother's literacy foundation. The publishers have received honors from two Bush administrations and they in turn have bestowed awards on Secretary Rod Paige, who then keynoted their business conference. The same company's former executive vice president is the new U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. Direct Instruction has become synonymous with the "scientifi cally based methods" required by No Child Left Behind.

The War on Public Education has ratcheted up parental fear with cleverly designed rhetoric of failing schools, data disaggregation, underperforming students, unqualifi ed teachers and clever slogans like, "no excuses." If you turn public schools, even the best ones, into single-minded test-prep factories where teachers drone on from scripted lessons and more people will want that magical voucher. Repeatedly demonize teachers and the public will lose confi dence regardless of their personal experiences with their local school. So, how are you doing? Is your job now more about compliance than kids? Are sound educational experiences being sacrifi ced for testpreparation? Has fear replaced joy in your classrooms? President Reagan might suggest we ask ourselves, "Is your school better off than it was four years ago?" DA Gary Stager, gary@stager.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.


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