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How change can poison schools

We see a bad school. We pray that it will change. It is an understandable reaction. But an acidic research paper by two scholars in Oregon raises the possibility that sometimes change is the worst thing that can happen to hard-working teachers trying to get their school on its feet.

Their paper---apparently a first attempt at a wider study---is a useful addition to a debate going on in many cities, particularly the District of Columbia, where one formula for change has made headway but has inspired significant opposition from equally well-intentioned people who think a different formula would be better.

Researchers Jean Stockard, a sociologist at the University of Oregon and the National Institute for Direct Instruction, and Donna Dwiggens, who also works for the institute, describe what happened at Columbus Elementary School in Chester, Penn., when a benefactor brought Direct Instruction learning program to the school.

Direct Instruction, designed in the 1960s by University of Oregon researchers Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley C. Becker, is one of a few programs that have been proven effective in several independent studies and are being used in thousands of schools, but aren't mentioned much because policy makers quoted by people like me have moved on to more fashionable ideas. Similarly good but under-appreciated programs include Success For All, created by Johns Hopkins University researchers Robert E. Slavin and Nancy A. Madden, and the School Development program created by James P. Comer and his colleagues at Yale University, which I wrote about in December.

Stockard and Dwiggens, as partisans for Direct Instruction, or DI as it is often called, cannot be accepted as objective observers. Their paper, "The Ups and Downs of Whole School Reform: A Case Study of Success and Its Demise," is a fun read in part because it is so one-sided. The villains of their story---officials at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who allegedly interfered with the DI program, a collection of erratic Pennsylvania state officials and the Edison school reform company---are given no chance to defend themselves. I promise to try to get their views and present them in a future column.

The story Stockard and Dwiggens tell is in line with a hundreds other tales of promising school reforms soured by too many innovative chefs seasoning the broth. It happens all the time. The question is, in this messy but vigorous democracy, is there any thing we should or can do about that?

When DI arrived at Columbus Elementary in 1999 with the assistance of a $100,000 grant from a wealthy fan of the program, the prison-like building with 800 students was the lowest performing school in the lowest performing school district in the state. The money was used by the benefactor, not identified by the authors, to set up an institute devoted to DI at IUP. It got off on the wrong foot from the very beginning, the authors say.

"The University President desperately wanted the money (as do most university presidents) but he didn't want to take the time to walk through the various processes to get concensus or even, apparently, acceptance at the University level," they say. So he made the institute separate from the education department, and you can guess what happened next.

The benefactor knew the then-governor, Tom Ridge, who the authors say got state officials involved in DI at Columbus Elementary project mostly because he wanted to set himself up as a potential U.S. Secretary of Education when a new president was elected. (Bias alert: Ridge lives in my neighborhood in Bethesda, Md. We have had pleasant conversations in the line at the local pharmacy. We are also college classmates, but did not know each other then.)

The Pennsylvania Department of Education and the IUP persuaded the local school district---in no position to resist any advice from the state--to let DI start work at Columbus. They weren't happy about it, the authors say. One informant told the researchers the district, Chester Uplands, "did everything either by omission, commission, and/or deliberate sabotage" to make sure the project failed.

But the two DI people brought into the school, and paid by the university, made progress. They discovered the administrators at the school were just like them, conscientious educators desperate to help disadvantaged children. DI requires that teachers teach in the same way, and at the same pace. "Low performers and disadvantaged learners must be taught at a faster rate than typically occurs if they are to catch up to their higher performing peers," the DI Web site says. Teachers began to adjust, and school work improved.

That's when the local university education department struck back. A man described by the authors as a "wily professor," again unidentified, went to the university committee that investigated improper research methods and complained that it was wrong for the two DI staffers to be both university employees, with research responsibilities, and privy to the day-to-day data that was crucial to their decisions on how to proceed in the DI system. The university withdrew and the two DI staffers had to carry on as private consultants.

They and the school's teachers still made progress, but more change was lurking. The state legislature passed a new education program that replaced the Chester Uplands school board with a new three person board and a team of parents, community members and administrators to approve a new plan for Columbus and the other schools. They decided to ask private companies to come manage their schools, as was about to happen in nearby Philadelphia. The DI staffers made an alliance with one of the private companies,

Eventually, Edison, not the company the DI staffers were working with, was given Columbus to manage. Edison fired the school admininstrators and put in charge a first-time principal whose emphasis was different from theirs. One DI staffer left. The other hung on. She had a three year contract so could not be fired. But DI was done at Columbus. The DI staffer eventually moved to a local charter school with some of the Columbus students, their progress afterwards not revealed by the authors.

Stockard and Dwiggens end their story with a vivid illustration of the effects of too much change. When Edison took over, all the DI books were discarded at the end of the school year. But Edison---now known as EdisonLearning--- didn't get its new curricular materials into the classrooms until the next November, according to the authors.

I wasn't able to find a link to the paper, but I am still working on that and will blog it when I get it. The authors have a very negative view of many of the non-DI players. But that is always the way with change. All sides think they are right. And if they lose the battle, they will write their papers as if the winning side was nothing but clueless losers.

Is there anything that any rational person in Chester, Penn., could have done in the early 2000s to save the situation? If you have any answers, please tell me. I am having trouble seeing a solution to a problem that has ruined more school improvement efforts than any of us can count.

Read Jay's blog every day at

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By Jay Mathews  | May 7, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  Columbus Elementary School in Chester, Direct Instruction, Edison Schools, Penn., Tom Ridge, too much change for schools, well-intentioned reformers battle each other  
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I'm a little disappointed here.

This article reads more like the gossip one hears amongst the parents in car line at a parochial school.

Hopefully, Jay, you'll get more information and get back to us.

And please support this with data:
" the prison-like building with 800 students was the lowest performing school in the lowest performing school district in the state. "


Posted by: edlharris | May 7, 2010 6:19 AM | Report abuse

Fascinating. I hope you are able to get the other side to give its version on the record, the DI account is compelling and, unfortunately, quite believable.

I've heard many positive things about DI. I'd like to hear how things went for those moving to the Charter School too.

It is an important cautionary tale about all that can go wrong when change is imposed from outside. Unfortunately, change from the inside doesn't seem to happen much either.

Posted by: EduCrazy | May 7, 2010 8:00 AM | Report abuse

I may be wrong, but I believe DI started within the realm of special education. It works well with certain students, but I don't believe it should be a school-wide model/program.

It is interesting to me to see how many such programs (special ed) are brought into schools (particularly urban/low-income) as if they will be the cure. Those programs work with students whose IEPs demonstrate they will assist them with accessing the general ed curriculum. They were never meant to replace general ed curriculum for all students in a school building.

Why do we as Americans tout individuality, even the I in IEP stands for individual, and then when it comes to school reform bring in models that used for everyone regardless of need?

Posted by: researcher2 | May 7, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

Jay, my mother taught and was an administrator in the Chester Upland school district a bit before the time period of your story and her experiences of corruption and mismanagement were over the top. It makes DCPS look like Harvard and Ms Rhee look qualified. Her schools game plan was to seperate itself as much as possible from the central office and try to get something done. I don't think any program could have worked unless the the right folks were "taken care of".

Posted by: mamoore1 | May 7, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

For researcher 2---I wasn't aware of DI's special ed beginnings, but there is no question that it has proven to work for all kinds of kids. The American Institutes of Research did a big mega-analysis of all of the major school reform models about a decade ago. looking to see which had positive results verified by the best possible independent research. Only DI and Success For All met their standard in all respects.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 7, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

When they did their research which schools were studied, and what other programs were viewed?

Are you saying that DI, having met "their standards in all respects" would be good for average, above average and gifted students?

Posted by: researcher2 | May 7, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

In my experience, when leadership changes at a school, the people who really don't want reform, because they are not interested in educational reform, trick the new people into thinking that they are on their side. They are really pushing their own agendas like making sure they get the best schedules, less duties etc or they enjoy the reputation as "favorites".

It would seem obvious that if they have so much time to spend in the office flattering the new leaders that they aren't doing any planning,etc. Amazingly, new leaders fall for this and alienate the teachers who would have given them support on their "change agendas."

I just think the idea of a magical new method is idealistic at best. But if you are going to insist, then at least respect the hard-working people who are going to implement the plans and don't alienate them by having favorites while everyone else gets more work, tougher classes, etc.

Insulting all the people who disagree with you and being surprised that they are dedicated is another thing to avoid.

Posted by: celestun100 | May 7, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

For researcher2, with a good question:

They looked at whole schools, so that would include kids of every kind. You would enjoy looking at the report. I still have it on my shelf. It was a very big deal at the time, when it came out in 1999. They examined the research on 24 schoolwide approaches, from America's Choice to Core Knowledge to Paideia. It is about 300 pages long, with appendices, and I bet is somewhere on the net, or at least available to buy on Amazon. The title is "An Educators' Guide to Schoolwide Reform" by AIR, Rebecca Herman the project director.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 7, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Stockard told me today that the paper should be posted on the Web site by tomorrow, May 8, if not tonight.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 7, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Is this Direct Instruction the same as direct instruction, the method, where the teacher states the objective and purpose and then teaches the lesson, gives feedback on guided practice, provides independent practice and more feedback? Madeline Hunter, I think. Or was it something else?

Posted by: celestun100 | May 7, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

I visited the school when DI first began. It was a very sad sight. There were many children who were non readers. Most children were years behind in reading. The overall atmosphere was chaotic.
I had the opportunity to visit the school again two years later. An amazing change had occurred. The school was very orderly and positive. Children were being successful. Kids who had started in kindergarten were reading at grade level by the end of first grade. Children who had been non readers in upper grades were making good progress. I admired so much what the the teachers and their coaches had accomplished.

It was nothing less than criminal to see the DI program destroyed there.

Many people criticize DI because it teaches the beginning level skills to children who have the potential to succeed but are locked out by poor instruction. DI also teachers very high level skills. Once the basics are done, students learn to analyze text for misleading arguments, faulty arguments, inaccurate claims, faulty arguments. They read a wide variety of literature.

A recent report of data from a long term study in Baltimore indicated that children who began their school career significantly at risk performed at grade level in fifth grade after receiving DI from kindergarten through fifth grade. This report can be found on web site for the National Institute for Direct Instruction in the research section.

Posted by: JSILB24034 | May 7, 2010 5:55 PM | Report abuse

Anecdotal research is so looked down upon in education that I find this utterly frustrating. I've had plenty of students do poorly on SOLs for whom I could show tons of anecdotal evidence of their progress but it wouldn't matter. How is this one example proof that change can poison schools? For that matter, wasn't it change when they brought in DI? It sounds as though these researchers simply wrote up their own biases. I'm disappointed here.

Posted by: Jenny04 | May 7, 2010 8:37 PM | Report abuse

"DI requires that teachers teach in the same way, and at the same pace."

This is the fatal flaw in "methods". If you try and impose them on experienced teachers, you are demanding that they throw away years of their own training, experience, and teaching materials, to which they have strong emotional attachment. Trying to impose methods this rigorously turns classrooms into rigid production-lines; the structure might help inexperienced or less proficient teachers, but experienced teachers, and more importantly, teacher trainers, see themselves as artisans, and they will need to be persuaded, not coerced.

Posted by: Trev1 | May 7, 2010 10:14 PM | Report abuse


It's an interesting situation but not unique. These types of things happen routinely in schools and I think are partly to blame for a lack of clear improvement. I'm an Autistic Support teacher in Philadelphia and we just got Corrective Reading and Math (Siegfried Engelmann's DI curriculum) this year. Here are some of the developments in Philadelphia (and in my own classroom):

1) These DI, scripted programs were mandated from the top (Ackerman) for all special ed students and empowerment school students.

2) many teachers at the empowerment schools loudly complained that the focus of the reading program is basically on decoding and not comprehension, which helps little on the PSSA (state test). Some teachers have said that it's a conspiracy to ensure failure at these schools and slate them foroutside takeover.

3) The scripts demand clicking and pointing which many older students complained about or openly mocked. This is true.

4) In my own experience, all of my higher functioning AS students made reading gains. 2 Autistic students who are in inclusion but come back to me for remediation gained almost 2 grade levels in 6 months. The biggest gains were from word attack.

My nonverbal or significantly impaired students did not make progress. In fact, the constant need to keep them on-task within the group setting (as stated in the program) undermined my pacing...and made me a little crazy.

5) A trainer from SRA (publisher for Corrective Reading/Math) visited my classroom *this week* and told me (completely contradicting the previous trainers) that I need not bother trying to fit my nonverbal/ cognitively impaired students into any group and just work one-to-one with them. This is Discrete Trial format, an ABA-style of teaching for Autistic Support which I already do. Apparently, if I work on *one* letter-sound the whole year, so be it!

Bottom line: It took most of the school year to finally get the appproval to impliment a good remediation program *effectively*. This is why programs don't work as well as they should.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | May 8, 2010 8:16 AM | Report abuse

This is about professional ineptness, not about school change or poison.

The take home from the AIR study

is that DI was one of the few "innovations/reforms" that had any integrity. Most were just empty rhetoric.

This has been confirmed in a more recent long range study, that incidentally involved Success for All:

The bottom line:

"A design can fail because of a poor
approach to implementation, it can fail because of an ineffective approach to instruction, or it can fail on both counts. That is an important lesson, and one that should guide all future research and development in the area."

Researchers typically contend that school administrators ruin their great ideas (lack of fidelity), and teachers and administrators typically contend the program stinks (doesn't fit the kids' needs).

Both are right, but the beat goes on without any change.

The Stockard and Dwiggens account is confounded by university intramural squabbling. That aspect was important to the S&D and to the University combatants, but it was incidental to the failure of the instructional improvement initiative,

Posted by: DickSchutz | May 8, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

"particularly the District of Columbia, where one formula for change has made headway but has inspired significant opposition from equally well-intentioned people who think a different formula would be better."

Jay, what formula for change is making headway in DCPS?

Posted by: Nemessis | May 9, 2010 7:28 AM | Report abuse

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