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The teaching method that can save Michigan schools


As state government tightens the vise on low achievement in Michigan schools, with looming takeovers and shutdowns and now with the new third grade retention legislation, a powerful method for lifting student achievement is neglected. Teachers don’t know about it. School leaders are advised to avoid it. And education experts will attack it as soon as they read its name.

Ironically, the method is disregarded despite an unsurpassed record of success in decades of research. It was the only method proven to close the achievement gap in the largest education study in history, Project Follow Through. But the findings of that study were “virtually ignored by the education establishment” according to a report from the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies. Esteemed researcher, John Hattie, described this rejection by education experts as “Perhaps the most famous example of policy makers not using or being convinced by evidence”

Longitudinal studies published in the 1980’s showed that the use of this method in Flint Schools during Project Follow Through raised test scores, graduation rates and college admissions. But the education experts in Flint discarded it.

In the early 2000’s, the method boosted achievement in three Detroit elementary schools where it was piloted during the “Schools of the 21st Century” initiative.

According to witnesses, then Detroit Public Schools superintendent, Dr. Kenneth Burnley, stood in one classroom listening to every single student gleefully reading at grade level and said, with tears in his eyes, “This is what we need in all Detroit schools.”

sed Christopher and Virginia Sower Center for Successful Schools, a for-profit that offers Direct Instruction implementation to schools and training and support for Restorative Practices.

But he was not able to convince the education experts.

In 1999, an American Federation of Teachers report said that when “this program is faithfully implemented, the results are stunning, with some high-poverty schools reporting average test scores at or above grade level—in a few cases, several grades above.”

In 2003, an extensive meta-analysis of 29 comprehensive school reform programs showed this method to be the most effective approach for changing schools. In 2014, a statewide STEM symposium sponsored by the Engineering Society of Detroit—the nation’s oldest and largest association of engineers—recommended this method as a solution to Michigan’s low academic achievement.

But the education experts ignored all of this.

The method is sometimes used in remedial and special education to repair the harm of low-achievement, but it is virtually never used as it was designed: as a core curriculum to prevent failure. In my client schools that use it, teachers often exercise caution so the education experts won’t find out.

What does this method look like? In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a “right to read” lawsuit against the Highland Park Schools and the State of Michigan for failing to adequately teach students to read. The ACLU’s legal brief described this method without naming it:

“Education research has demonstrated the effectiveness of structured, systematic, direct and explicit teaching.”

The evidence supporting this statement was summarized by researchers Richard Clark, Paul Kirschner and John Sweller in the Spring, 2012, issue of American Educator:

“Decades of research clearly demonstrate that for novices (comprising virtually all students), direct, explicit instruction is more effective and more efficient than partial guidance.”

Nevertheless, by September of this year, education experts apparently steered the Michigan ACLU to issue a new report on reading. In the report, the evidence based recommendation for direct and explicit teaching was replaced with a call for “inquiry-based curricula,” a partial guidance approach that researcher John Hattie describes as: “almost directly opposite to the successful recipe for teaching and learning.”

To be clear, this is not an either-or issue. Once students acquire a solid factual and conceptual foundation in a subject, teachers certainly should use some inquiry-based activities. But Michigan’s students are well below the national average in reading and math, and the research is clear that direct and explicit teaching is a more efficient use of instructional time.

So what is this specific method I’m talking about? The name is simply “Direct Instruction.”

Some clarification is needed: the term “direct instruction” with lower case letters is a loosely defined, generic approach to teaching, but “Direct Instruction” with uppercase first letters is a very specific set of precisely designed programs. Direct Instruction has been proven to build both foundational skills and higher-order thinking abilities in low-performing, average, gifted, and even very learning disabled students. Studies show that it also improves students’ self esteem because…well… they feel successful. You can learn more about Direct Instruction here and here.

Education experts attack Direct Instruction with catchy clichés like “drill and kill,” “rote learning,” “one size does not fit all” and “sage on the stage,” but noted author, John McWhorter, declared that Direct Instruction is one of three policy changes that could dramatically reduce poverty in America (the other two involve drug and contraception policy reforms).

In an article entitled, “We Know How to Teach Black Kids,” McWhorter wrote: “In a better America, schools that do not use Direct Instruction to teach kids from poor households should be seen as vaguely criminal. People should point them out as they drive by them, like crack houses.”

Thousands of children are failing in Michigan schools, but not because of low standards, insufficient choice or weak accountability. Nor are they failing because of inequitable funding, racial segregation, large class sizes or even poverty.

Of course, all of these issues impact learning and should be addressed, but the primary reason that so many students are failing is that teachers have been cheated out of effective curricula by the education experts.
And now teachers are being blamed for their students’ under-achievement, threatened with ambiguous performance evaluations and overburdened with often unreasonable mandates.

How have the education experts cheated our teachers? Primarily by failing to provide adequate preparation in the education colleges they operate. According to a U.S. Department of Education survey: “The vast majority of new teachers – almost two-thirds – report that their teacher preparation program left them unprepared for the realities of the classroom.”

In a stunningly honest admission, TeachingWorks, a reform initiative at the University of Michigan’s School of Education, stated:

“(O)ur nation has carelessly left the quality of teaching—and hence, students’ learning—to chance. Teachers’ preparation does not typically center on the core tasks necessary for good teaching…Instead, too often teachers’ training focuses on learning about teaching, not on learning to teach.”

This year, David P. Hurford and five co-authors published a scathing critique of education colleges for failing to prepare teachers to teach reading. Citing widespread rejection of the well-established scientific evidence on reading, they accused teacher preparation programs of “resistance, ignorance and complacency.”

“In each case, colleges of education faculty have ignored the scientific knowledge that informs reading acquisition and the identification and intervention strategies for struggling readers. As a result, the pre-service teachers who are being educated at these institutions fail to receive the necessary training that would allow them to be effective in providing remediation to students.”

This certainly is not the first time we’ve heard this message. In 1999, reading specialist, Louisa Moats, alerted us to this crisis in a report published by the American Federation of Teachers:

“The demands of competent reading instruction, and the training experiences necessary to learn it, have been seriously underestimated by universities. The consequences for teachers and students alike have been disastrous.”

Finally, Suzanne Whitney, research editor for, the respected clearinghouse for special education law, reported that “few, if any, teacher’s colleges in the United States are training teachers in even one research based method of reading instruction.” (emphasis in original)

We couldn’t even imagine if our medical schools or engineering colleges were failing to teach research-based methods; but in teacher preparation, it appears to be the norm.

Thousands of children’s lives are at stake, and Michigan’s future viability is at risk. Let’s cut our unnecessarily complex and increasingly contentious Gordian knot of education “reform.”

We can’t wait for the education experts to improve teacher preparation. Even if they were inclined to do so, it would take years to actually produce results. And top-down, punitive policies from state government—suspiciously aligned with nefarious forces seeking to privatize and capitalize public education—will not solve the problem.

But schools and local districts can begin now by allowing and encouraging teachers to use Direct Instruction and other proven curricula, and by providing teachers with the necessary training and coaching to do it with fidelity.

Effective teaching is a complex interplay between instruction and behavior management. Thus, we must also support our schools to move away from behavioral methods that are either too punitive or too permissive. Instead, they should combine conventional discipline with firm and positive approaches like Restorative Practices and the Nurtured Heart Approach, which can systematically build healthier relationships and stronger accountability. However, school leaders must avoid the mistake of using these models only to lower suspension rates while expecting teachers to tolerate more disruption.

I’ll end with the wisdom of leading education researcher, Robert Slavin, who developed another highly effective teaching model, “Success for All,” that is also rarely used in schools:

“The problem, I would argue, is that reforms so often debated in the White House, in Congress, and in statehouses across the country do not touch on the changes needed to fundamentally reform America’s schools…These reforms ignore a basic truth. Student achievement cannot change unless America’s teachers use markedly more effective instructional methods.”

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