We Already Know How to Fix Education

teachers changing education

Just imagine if all teachers were given a break from constant new programs introduced from above and allowed to teach this way. Imagine the growth we could see.

One of the most frustrating experiences as a public school teacher is being forced to start a new fancy program each year, sometimes not even at the beginning of the year, based on what is trendy at that moment in education. A college professor, politician, business person, or someone at a testing company comes up with an all new approach to teaching my struggling students how to read or do math and we have to stop what we were told to do last year and start this new program. We are always assured that this new curriculum is so much better than the old one. But guess what? The next year, just as we are getting used to said program, we are again told to try something different.

You may be thinking that I am stuck in my ways — another educator adverse to change. However, I actually think that change is needed, but change for the sake of change will not improve education. It also causes several big problems for the classroom teacher:

  • When programs are changed often and implemented quickly without the proper training, no one can learn how to use them correctly, and by the time the teacher starts to learn, the system has moved on to something else.
  • Having no program consistency over the years from one teacher or grade to the next causes students to become confused and does not create the needed improvement in student achievement.
  • This approach over the long-term causes teachers as well as those outside the school to begin to doubt a teacher’s ability to choose what is best for their students. This results in a drop in teacher morale which affects student morale.

What if I told you we already know what the best program is? And guess what? It was not created by corporate America or an academic; it was created by a preschool teacher. It is called the Direct Instruction Follow Through Model by Zig Engelmann. Interestingly, I think it is most similar to what teachers would probably choose, if they were allowed to make the decisions about how to teach in their own classrooms.

The largest educational experiment of all time was called Project Follow Through. It was conducted from 1967-1995 by the Department of Education and the Department of Economic Opportunity at 180 sites, with over 200,000 children (grades K-3), using 22 programs, and costing about a billion dollars. Student achievement data was used to determine success. This study sought to find a way to improve schools that were poor educationally and economically so that their performance matched schools in mainstream America, and they did. The only model that succeeded in bringing children close to the 50th percentile in all subjects was Direct Instruction. Here are some of its basic tenets:

  1. Students are tested to find out their current skill level.

This involves giving them a diagnostic test to determine the skills that they can and cannot do. Knowing this is the key to measuring growth, as we must know where a student begins in order to determine if they have learned anything at all. Currently, many students are just given a proficiency test at the end of the year. This test measures whether a student has mastered certain skills that are determined by the curriculum to be appropriate for that grade level. There are several problems with just measuring proficiency at the end of the year. For example, some students who are advanced or gifted start the year at the proficient level or, conversely, some students who begin the year well below grade level may make years of growth but still not show proficiency. When the latter happens it is a huge achievement for both the teacher and the student but often one for which the teacher is punished when only proficiency is tested.

  1. Students are instructed at their current skill level

Based on their testing, students are then grouped and instructed at their current skill level. There was nothing more frustrating for me as a teacher than feeling like I had to rush students along through a curriculum that they were not ready for. Imagine how effective it would be if we just met students where they are and taught them what they needed to learn.

  1. The focus is on mastery of each skill and students move at their own pace

In Direct Instruction, skills are introduced gradually and students are expected to master those skills before moving on. This is in stark contrast to what is common practice in many schools right now, where teachers feel that they must move on, regardless of student progress, because that is what the curriculum map dictates. With Direct Instruction, when a student does move on, ten percent of the lesson is new material and 90 percent is review. This eliminates the problem that we encounter as teachers ALL THE TIME, where we are left asking ourselves, “Why don’t you know this, I just taught it to you last month?” when a student has forgotten. Students don’t forget when they are constantly reviewing. They forget when they are taught skills exclusively in isolation. If students have not learned the skill yet, they can be provided with more practice. If a student quickly masters skills, they can move on quickly.

Just imagine if all teachers were given a break from constant new programs introduced from above and allowed to teach this way. Imagine the growth we could see. Imagine how many fewer behavior problems we would have. Imagine the morale boost. I am not suggesting a mandate, maybe just simply providing accurate information about what works best and then letting educators themselves choose and stick with what is working.

-Nina Parrish, M.Ed.
Owner | Parrish Learning Zone, LLC


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