Teaching method makes the grade


IN THE RECENT flurry of news about school testing locally and nationally, one accomplishment might have been missed, and it's worth noting:

Direct Instruction passed the five-year test in Baltimore with flying colors.

In the 1990s, when the highly scripted, phonics-based program began making waves in Baltimore, there were many doubters. Direct Instruction - DI, for short - went against the teaching practices recommended by much of the education establishment. It was considered too regimented. Teachers hated it.

Under another name (DISTAR), it had been tried here in the 1970s but had not lasted. And, like an earlier plan to install the private Calvert School curriculum at a Baltimore public school, it had the disadvantage of having been introduced, promoted and partially funded not by the folks who run the school system, but by well-meaning outsiders.

Give us five years, said DI's sponsors. That's the minimum that should be afforded any school reform. If we can't show sustained progress by 2001, we should fold our tents and go away.

Well, we're still lacking fifth-year results from this spring's Maryland state school performance testing, but the five original DI elementary schools - Hampstead Hill, Roland Park, City Springs, General Wolfe and Arundel - don't have to leave camp. According to results of a national standardized test released last week, they have half a decade of growth to brag about, and the 12 other DI schools in the city are pulling ahead of citywide averages on those same tests.

In reading, all five of the original DI schools outpaced citywide averages on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, taken this March, and in four of five grades their kids scored above the national median. (The fourth grade, for reasons no one can explain, is a problem everywhere.)

City Springs Elementary, smack in the middle of one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, is a case in point. If Baltimore schools in general have done well on the CTBS, City Springs has performed even better, improving reading scores by 54 percentage points in the first grade and 53 points in the fifth since Direct Instruction arrived. During the same period, citywide median percentile scores increased by 29 and 25 percentage points, respectively.

"The proof is in the pudding," says Bernice E. Whelchel, completing her sixth year as City Springs' principal. And she's not just talking about test scores, which these days fly around like spring pollen. Even those of us who are crazy enough to watch scores closely become overwhelmed. Is a school to be judged "good" or "bad" strictly on the basis of how its pupils score on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program or CTBS?

No, the way to judge the difference at City Springs is to visit - and to remember five years ago. The city has imploded the nearby East Baltimore high-rise projects since then, and enrollment is down from the high 300s to 290. That's helped, but it doesn't fully explain the new atmosphere: Out of chaos, there is order and respect. Many more parents are participating. Upstairs, a U.S. history class is eagerly discussing a recent field trip to Monticello, President Thomas Jefferson's home in Virginia.

One of the raps against DI is that while it might do a good job at teaching the mechanics of reading with its highly scripted instruction, it falls down when it comes to comprehension.

I saw no evidence of that among the fifth- and fourth-graders in the stuffy U.S. history classroom. They had done their reading with understanding; they knew about the Lewis and Clark expedition, about slavery and even about Jefferson's gardens. I've heard first-graders at City Springs reading with evident understanding, but that hasn't silenced the critics who charge that DI is simply "rote learning."

The program's founder and leader, Siegfried "Ziggy" Engelmann, says he believes that children fail to learn when instruction is unclear or poorly organized. So DI is systematic and highly structured. It's a "step-by-step procedure," says Whelchel, "so that no child can possibly fall through the cracks. You have to be a purist as far as implementing Direct Instruction."

Given the success of DI at City Springs and elsewhere, you would think that city school officials would embrace it enthusiastically - and you would think wrongly. Other programs, after all, also are working in city schools, and these allow more teacher flexibility. Moreover, success among the DI schools is uneven.

If DI were to lose foundation support, it might go the way of so many other promising city school reforms. But Whelchel isn't worried about that just now: "Next year, we're going to knock the socks off the ... tests again."

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