Back to the basics (again)

July 21, 1996|By Jean Thompson

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."

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