DIRECT Instruction works. And I’d never send my own child to a school that uses it.
That may seem like a paradox. But the picture becomes clearer once you have a sense of what Direct Instruction looks like. A half-century old, this highly controlled instructional model groups children by ability, breaks learning into discrete components, requires relentless assessment and even scripts teacher instruction. According to its designer, Direct Instruction is “a set of procedures for producing a change in behavior toward a pre-stated objective.”
Not surprisingly, students in Direct Instruction classrooms tend to do well on tests — something highlighted in a recent Seattle Times story about Gildo Rey Elementary in Auburn, where students earn top scores despite a high poverty rate.
In Gildo Rey’s less-formal application of direct instruction (lowercase, since it’s not formal), teachers work without scripts, and the school does not purchase materials from a Direct Instruction provider.
Still, even with informal direct instruction, the approach is teacher-centered, simplifies classroom aims to the basics, and emphasizes repetition and drill.
Want to raise reading-comprehension scores? Direct Instruction is a surefire way to do it.
But the strengths of the program are also its weaknesses. The program narrows the aims of education and leaves little room for creativity, spontaneity and play in the classroom. Although test scores may go up, the improvement is not without a cost.
Where do we see Direct Instruction? Not in affluent neighborhoods or in prestigious college-preparatory schools. Instead, the program is almost exclusively the preserve of schools serving our most vulnerable students.
To be clear: Many underserved students are in desperate need of basic skills. And there is a simple justice in the promotion of literacy and numeracy. Our most vulnerable students need to be able to read, write and compute, and no program that helps them do these things should be viewed as a detriment.
Schools that are successfully employing Direct Instruction, then, should not be criticized for their efforts. After all, they did not create the radical social and economic inequities that lead to educational disparities.
But while teachers and administrators at schools like Gildo Rey should feel good about the work they are doing, we educators must not lose sight of what true equity looks like. We must resist the urge to think that models like Direct Instruction represent a solution for the profound unfairness that characterizes American education.
When we say that Direct Instruction works, the question we should ask is: “works at what?” Because there are very real limits to what the model can do.
I do want all students to develop necessary skills. But I also want them to see school as a place of exploration and wonder, to develop their passions, to cultivate their interests and to delight in their own discoveries. I want all students to be able to compute; but I also want them to create. I want them to write in paragraphs; but I also want them to write poetry.
The sad fact is that schools serving low-income students have to make a stark choice. Do they want to promote freedom, play and spontaneity? Or do they want to promote basic competencies?
Direct Instruction is fine as a temporary solution. But such programs do not create equal schooling experiences. Nor will they ever. Not as long as children enter school at vastly different levels of readiness, and with sizable disparities in the support they receive. Not as long as we fail to address the deeper issues that deny children opportunities.
Schools like Gildo Rey are doing important work and should be praised for their accomplishments. But we should also recognize that such schools must make choices that their more privileged counterparts do not have to make. And that fact should trouble us. Because when it comes to education, we should want everything. And we should want it for every child.
Jack Schneider is an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and author of the book “From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education.”