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February 2010 Archives

In an article titled, "The Under-Worked American: Children Are the Exceptions to the Country's Work Ethic," the June 13, 2009 edition of The Economistreports significant differences in the length of the school year in various countries around the globe. The 180-day school year that is the average for American students is among the shortest in the world. The article goes on to chronicle that the six and a half hours that American students spend in school per day is one of the shortest school days in the world. As disconcerting as these statistics may be, The Economist misses the most salient, and in my opinion the most disturbing, point about the American educational system. While American students clearly spend less time in the classroom than their counterparts around the world, the real issue is how this precious, short instructional time is spent in American classrooms. 

The September 2, 2009 edition of The New York Times described in vivid terms a new educational trend that exemplifies how time is used in American classrooms. The article reports that in middle school classrooms across the United States teachers are turning over all the decisions about which books to read to the students: "Students choose their own books, discuss them individually with their teacher and one another, and keep detailed journals about their reading." The author goes on to say that while there is no clear consensus among teachers, variations on the approach, known as reading workshop, are catching on. Some schools are setting aside as much as 40 minutes of instructional time every other day for students to read books of their own choosing. While the teachers and schools that are adopting this approach may be well intended, they are nonetheless misguided. There is a large body of research that thoroughly evaluates the effectiveness of various instructional strategies and confirms that this type of "student centered" approach to teaching reading is not a particularly effective strategy, especially for at-risk students.

With the goal of maximizing the impact of instructional time, the National Research Council, the National Reading Panel, and a host of other researchers have identified scientifically verified effective instructional practices. Among the many instructional strategies used in American classrooms, one methodology stands out among all others: direct instruction. The term "direct instruction" refers to a rigorously developed, highly structured method of teaching that requires teachers to develop specific learning objectives and provides constant interaction between students and the teacher. 

Support for direct instruction comes from a plethora of research studies, but none more important than Project Follow Through, which was the most extensive educational experiment ever conducted. This study, which began in 1968 and continued through 1977, was designed to identify the best way of teaching at-risk children from kindergarten through third grade. Thousands of children in over a hundred different communities were included in the study, and 22 different models of instruction were compared. The programs were implemented over a five-year period and the results were analyzed by two different independent research institutes. The 22 programs studied were grouped into the three classes (Basic Skills, Cognitive-Conceptual, and Affective-Cognitive). The program that produced the best results in general was direct instruction, a subset of Basic Skills. The other program types, which would include current instructional methodologies such as student-centered learning and whole language, produced inferior results. Students receiving direct instruction did better than those in all other programs when tested in reading, arithmetic, spelling and language. Contrary to assertions of proponents of whole language and other student-centered approaches, direct instruction improved cognitive skills (higher order thinking skills) dramatically relative to the control groups and also showed the highest improvement in self-esteem scores compared to control groups. 

Since this groundbreaking work, Jeanne Chall, John Hollingsworth and Silvia Ybarra, and other researchers have reached the same conclusion: direct instruction works not only for at-risk students, but for all students. Since it produces rapid improvement in skills and knowledge and these gains persist over time, direct instruction optimizes precious instructional time. Year after year at Windward, we see the positive effects of direct instruction. Our analysis of student achievement data confirms the rapid acquisition of skills and knowledge reported in the literature. On average, students leave Windward after a stay of 3.5 years with 90 percent scoring at the average to above-average range on standardized tests. We also find that these gains persist over time. Windward surveys the schools that our alums attend after they leave. Administrators and guidance counselors at these independent and public schools consistently report that after two years at their new schools, Windward graduates are academically at or above their grade level peers.

Despite a preponderance of evidence supporting the use of direct instruction, especially with at-risk students, far too few teachers make use of this strategy. At Windward, direct instruction is used in every classroom by every teacher. The significant and long-lasting academic gains that our students make, and the improvement to their self-esteem that accompanies real achievement, are further evidence of the value of direct instruction. If American students are going to compete with students in other countries that have longer school days and longer school years, our schools will have to maximize every minute of instructional time. Research-proven strategies such as direct instruction will need to be part of every teacher's repertoire.

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