July 19, 2004

Getting your goat


Well, that three years just flew by.

I have a Talk of the Town piece in The New Yorker this week: The Pet Goat Approach. If you like it, come back and I'll tell you more.

Here's the behind the scenes story: Inevitably, a few paragraphs were cut for space. That's not a problem when the editors doing the cutting are the best in the business, and it ended up reading very well -- probably better than the longer version -- but I did have a kind of literary agenda that may have been sacrificed a bit in the trimming. My plan was to take liberal New Yorker readers on a little roller coaster ride (I guess it would work for conservative readers in reverse too): Start out getting them excited to read another story about the stupid president and his stupid goat book; drop them down a hill when they realize it's actually a story about education; then up, up, up as they get angry at the authoritarian, rote memorization phonics lessons. One graf that originally appeared in this section read:

Engelmann seethes at the suggestion that children who learn this way might score better on standardized tests, but falter when it comes to intangible benefits of education, such as increased imagination or love of reading. “That’s a lie,” he said. “Everything that can’t be measured, we do a hell of a lot better than anybody else, and you can’t disprove that any more than they can prove it. And it’s a dumb statement. If it can’t be measured, what the hell are you talking about it for?”

Then I segue into the No Child Left Behind stuff and let readers get comfortable with their elevating distaste for Engelmann and his program, only to plunge into a loop-the-loop with the stuff about his lefty personal politics. The original end would have been even more jarring, spurring readers to see Direct Instruction as Engelmann does:

He does approve of Bush’s education goals — though he’s disappointed that they’ve become low priority since 9/11 — but he’d says it would be “very, very unfortunate,” if embracing scientifically based teaching methods meant serving the agenda of social conservatives. “There are people who are predisposed to like” his work, Engelmann admitted, “who have a primitive view of instruction. They like it because, ‘It’s Strict,’ ‘It’s Back to Basics,’ ‘it’s the Next Best Thing to a Uniform,’ or something like that. We don’t view it that way at all.”

Indeed, his litany of complaints about modern American education have much in common with those of his adversaries from the student-centered, whole language camps. He loathes the amount of time spent on test prep (“That’s for failures” ). He thinks homework is over-assigned and discriminates against poor children. It “bugs the hell out of” him that schools have no money or resources for music and art. “On education, I espouse the most liberal ideas,” he said at last. “We want these kids to be able to really think, really analyze. We want ‘em to have all kinds of choices about what they want to do with their futures. They’re not gonna have that if they don’t receive an education that provides them with options.”

One thing the piece doesn't capture — by intent — is the raging debate in the education world over DI and its brethren. I'm not an expert on education policy and it would have been foolhardy of me to try to draw conclusions in an article of this length. The truth is, I can understand both points of view. I certainly wouldn't want my own kids being taught by DI, but then I hope they won't need it. Engelmann says that kids who come to school with certain advantages -- parents who read to them, etc -- are able to learn shortcuts that make DI's core principles less necessary: "The more kids know the less likely they are to fail with a given approach, because if they can’t figure it out one way they’ll figure it out another. The less they know, or the more naïve they are, the greater the probability that if there is ambiguity, they’ll learn it the wrong way."

The compelling student-centered (i.e., 'progressive education') response to this is, "Oh, so education can be fun for middle class kids, but poor kids have to sit through this mind-deadening DI stuff." Engelmann would argue that kids enjoy learning through DI -- they do score higher on self-esteem, if that's any measure. I'm not sure I buy that completely, but it does seem to me that the best way to reduce poverty, and the number of people who come into school in the first place needing something like DI, is education. With luck, the children of the students who get into college thanks to DI won't need it themselves. Here Engelmann would certainly disagree, but I think my best case scenario would be that DI renders itself obsolete.

Further reading:

+ An overview of DI in comparison to other educational philosophies
+ The evidence that DI cites for its success
+ An article critical of DI and its evidence
+ A non tongue-in-cheek version of my conspiracy montage
+ Blogger Peter Smith's detective work (includes full text of The Pet Goat and the Florida classroom video)

Posted by Daniel Radosh

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