Back to the basics (again)


IN A CITY weary of fad-of-the-month education experiments, there is something comforting about the return of the disciplined curriculum.

This September, six Baltimore schools will begin teaching phonics using a teaching process pioneered nearly 30 years ago.

It is generically called "direct instruction." Small groups of children are driven by the teacher, with lessons structured rigidly and on a timetable, reinforced by repetition and constant correction. Rote memorization is not seen as evil; it's a required skill of learning.

Critical thinking and problem solving -- the watchwords of the moment -- are not ignored. Rather, they are introduced when there are basic reading, writing and computing skills in place to support them.

Sound simple? It's not.

Enter Siegfried Engelmann, a frequently outspoken professor affiliated with the University of Oregon. He is the author of "War Against the Schools' Academic Child Abuse," a 1992 book that is his tirade against the cycles of failed school reform. It is also his challenge to communities actively to reject fads, programs that have no track record and incompetent school management.

In the 1960s, he put together a teaching system relying heavily on direct instruction practices. He called the package DISTAR -- Direct Instruction Systems for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading. By the 1970s, a federally funded, nine-year study of instructional programs for inner-city youngsters had confirmed that Engelmann's program works.

Between then and now, phonics fell from favor and rebounded. New-fangled programs were introduced, stressing children's self-esteem, higher-order thinking, problem solving. DISTAR evolved into a published program called Reading Mastery.

After 30 years, Engelmann might be called a pioneer -- and might bristle at that. His approach is decidedly no-nonsense.

His version of direct instruction will be tried in six elementary schools, some facing steep challenges.

At Arundel Elementary, for example, only 1.9 percent of third graders scored satisfactory on the 1995 state performance test for reading. At Robert W. Coleman Elementary last year, third grade scores in reading declined. The other schools are Hampstead Hill, Roland Park, General Wolfe and City Springs.

Engelmann doesn't promise a miracle -- not tomorrow and not anytime soon. Instead, he sets goals: By the end of the first year in the six Baltimore schools, he said, every kindergartner of average IQ will be able to read the vocabulary she has been taught.

"Being able to teach the teachers to do that is going to take a little time," he said from his Eugene, Ore., office. For him the issue now is "Can we train teachers well enough to deal with the really low-performing kids? The easiest students to teach are the high performers."

The first year, test scores will not show improvement, he said. By the second or even third year of the project, after teachers have been fully trained in his Reading Mastery methods, scores on Maryland tests should begin to improve.

Between now and then will come a difficult period of transition. Student performance will get better as the teachers' skills improve, he said. There will be a rookie phase, as teachers submit to extensive training on new materials and lesson plans. Also, there will be tough changes in the way the schools do business, which everyone won't agree on but which have to be weathered.

Here's Engelmann: "We don't want high-profile. We don't want debate. We want to be left alone. Two years from now, we'll take our guns out and fight anybody. Right now, it's a big, big job."

His take on this is refreshing compared to that of other so-called reformers who arrived in Baltimore promising more than they could deliver.

"It's often difficult to talk to people on this level because they don't understand the pain, the process, the work" of teaching, Engelmann said. "They don't understand what's relatively easy, what's hard."

Establishing basic principles for expected behavior and motivating kids by letting them taste progress and success -- that's pretty easy, he said.

"Teaching low performers stuff they traditionally have trouble with, that's hard. You look at a lot of implementations, they spend a lot of time trying to get kids turned on, motivated. Management should be ancillary stuff that doesn't consume subject matter time. Once the bell rings and we start teaching, we're teaching."

The children will be placed in groups based on tests given last month. The tests suggest many in Baltimore will need remedial work. Appropriate placement in groups that will progress at a pace set by the teacher is the first step, he said.

The next step "is teaching them appropriately." His practices stress mastery of each step before the next is taught -- lesson by individual lesson. The steps are minute, planned down to the cues teachers use to get student response. Learn a sound, a letter, a usage at a time and build on that knowledge. Engelmann called it "the quintessence of a phonics program."

To check progress, he plans to reinstate a standardized test that compares individual student performance to national norms -- one that provides for teachers and parents an assessment of each child's progress.

The Abell Foundation, which is funding the five-year Baltimore Curriculum Project, also will pay for an independent evaluation of the experiment.

As with any program that has stood tests of time, Engelmann's has been attacked as well as praised. But it never disappeared from the map, even when phonics was out of fashion. It is in use currently in several schools in Utah, and in Houston, Chicago, Camden, N.J., and Dayton and Columbus, Ohio.

Sometimes, Reading Mastery is defined by what it does not do, rather than what it offers.

Engelmann's program isn't into pretty picture books. Older students will read the "Iliad."

But his Reading Mastery program isn't all classics: One of the basic guides also included text about Jackie Robinson, the baseball great.

In Engelmann's view, it's possible to go overboard with assigned literature. First learn to read, then read to learn, he said.

"Literature has its place," he said. "However, literature is not necessarily a good vehicle for teaching young kids to read. It's far more important for young kids to read text-like material, rather than nursery rhymes or classic literature. They are going to spend the rest of their academic lives reading textbooks, so we spend a great deal of time working on that. Then by the fifth and sixth levels, the reading series are all literature."

Engelmann's also not into expensive rewards and bribes used as incentives for student progress.

How about lectures on self-esteem? Ahem.

Try hard work.

"We are going to have to have the supervision, monitoring and follow-up and sheer grit to turn it around, and it's going to be a very hard job."

Engelmann's approach is sometimes described as the antithesis contemporary practices that allow children to learn at their own pace.

Oversimplified: Some of these children teach themselves through discovery, with the teacher serving as a facilitator. Advocates of this "child-centered" teaching would say that when properly applied, the methods produce motivated learners.

There is research evidence that some children -- especially those who start out behind in skills for a myriad of social reasons -- need more direction and structure. So do slow learners and children who have learning disabilities.

(To Engelmann, those are labels often used to blame the victim. He said "there are no learning disabilities, only teaching disabilities." He considers educational malpractice a form of child abuse. His book suggests that the key to improving student achievement is not magic: just strong management, strong curriculum, strong teaching, strong accountability.)

But all that aside, one of the great appeals of his Reading Mastery program is that its basic elements are not new. They are familiar, even if by other names.

Many Baby Boomers were taught by similar methods 30 years ago. Parents can look forward to a new curriculum that they can help reinforce at home without learning a newfangled and mysterious concept -- and without sitting by the child's side and feeling like a dimwit.

Also, to some teachers at the six schools -- who voted to participate in the experiment -- direct instruction is not a total stranger.

"A significant number of teachers in Baltimore already use a great deal of direct instruction methods, so this is not from Mars. Socrates used direct instruction," said Sam Stringfield, the Johns Hopkins University research scientist who has evaluated other curriculum experiments in Baltimore.

Most notably, he has been the outside evaluator of the Barclay and Carter G. Woodson schools' experimental use of the disciplined, basics-oriented Calvert School program. The Reading Mastery experiment grew out of that earlier -- and continuing -- venture with a highly prescriptive curriculum.

"I think this is an eminently sensible next step," Stringfield said. "This is as good a next step as any and it's worth a shot. You let it run for a few years and see what you've got.

"What will be tested here over time will be what is gained by having everyone learn how to read well," Stringfield said.

In theory, if you read well, write well, and work well in small groups, you will do well on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests, he said.

Of course, supporters of the curriculum experiment hope for broader benefits: academic success that can be duplicated throughout the school system. A brighter future for city children. To their credit, they aren't getting ahead of themselves with pronouncements or pledges.

In the continuing search for a better way to educate Baltimore's children, this five-year curriculum project is starting out on the right note: No hype. No pie in the sky.

Jean Thompson is an education reporter for The Sun.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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