Overcoming the Hurdles to Achieve Success in Direct Instruction: A Superintendent’s Story

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Few educators will argue that the Direct Instruction pedagogy provides an extremely effective addition to a K-12 academic curriculum, especially where you have a large proportion of struggling students.

But with that powerful advantage in quickly bringing “low” kids up to grade level and even above, comes the challenge of implementing the programs with a high degree of rigor, as well as keeping instructional capacity high.

Extreme power:  energizing challenges

Over the course of my experience as both a practitioner and administrator of Direct Instruction programs, I’ve noticed four areas creating challenges that pave the way to opportunities for student achievement.

  1. Managing the resistors. As a building administrator, you may face staff members who are going to be resistors of the DI curricula. These individuals may not necessarily believe that Direct Instruction works as well as it can. Some of these nay-sayers come from a whole language background, where explicit, direct instruction is less appreciated. However, this opinion is often turned around once the programs are in place, and student progress data is coming in. I have witnessed those individuals who were resisting what it is that we were trying to accomplish begin to jump in, get on board, and become fans. The data proves that these programs simply work.
  2. Scheduling your struggling students. Literacy, from my perspective is a lifetime gift. To help support this gift, you have to take students where they’re at. Over the course of my career I’ve encountered issues with classroom scheduling. For example, SRA Reading Mastery includes a “walk to read” program. That means kids leave their regular class to receive various levels of instruction they need, because you may have students that are one to two grade levels below. They need to acquire the skills that they need to become proficient in reading. One of the things I like about Reading Mastery, is the 80/20 concept—80% of the content that you teach is review, and 20% is new, so you gain a high success rate. But when it comes to scheduling, you need to let kids leave the classroom so they can focus on acquiring the reading and math skills to be successful. They move from one level and more forward, and progress—so the school can meet its goal.
  3. Elevating staff skills. Another area where attention is needed is instructional staffing.  When you employ a walk to read program, you may encounter staff members who begin with less than optimal experience in teaching literacy programs.  Building administrators have a saying that “you’re only as good as your worst teacher”. But in fact, Direct Instruction programs allow you to take a moderate teacher and turn them into an outstanding teacher—as long as they follow the actual script that’s used to instruct the students. Once during an implementation, I employed a paraprofessional to round out a group of professionals, bringing the teacher’s skills up to par quickly. I’ve also brought in Special Ed teachers to apply Direct Instruction. When you don’t have enough staff members, you get creative.
  4. Juggling the budget.  In one school, I applied full-immersion Direct Instruction for math and reading, using Connecting Math Concepts and Reading Mastery. I was able to economize by departmentalizing the implementation. Students would see a reading specialist in the morning or afternoon, and their schedule would reverse so they would see their math, science,  and social studies specialist in the opposite timeslot. This approach saved a little money in my budget—because buying a set of materials for every single teacher is more expensive.

I applied creativity to roll out the programs that I needed, and still purchase all the DI materials required for our students and staff. And, the advantage to having a split, departmentalized elementary building meant that students received instruction from an expert in a specific content area. Because we were in a low achieving school with a high concentration of poverty, kids were coming to school not academically ready, and lacking in vocabulary. I was able to provide teachers in front of those students who were experts in their content area, so learning could be accelerated and students could reach mastery more quickly than before.

Leading with DI

Prior to acquiring Direct Instruction programs, I conducted extensive background research. As a practitioner, I had used SRA Open Court Reading, another McGraw-Hill Education program, in the school district I worked in years ago as a new teacher. I also used Reading Mastery and Corrective Reading in classroom settings over the years.

What I’ve learned is that in order to be successful with the adoption and implementation of any program, you first need to have an Instructional Leader in the school. One that not only knows what teachers are doing in the classroom, but one that understands and can relate to what it is they are dealing with on a daily basis—including the things can become frustrating for them.

This video from Learning Forward, A Principal’s Story, talks about Instructional Leadership, and that’s really how we want our principals to lead.

John Hattie has published research around instruction. And he has found DI has a .59 effect size and the hinge point, with the research that he’s done, is .40. Researchers raise their eyebrows anytime they see anything with a .40 effect size or higher. And it’s amazing to think about, because many educators do not receive this information in professional development trainings. One resource I recommend is Visible Learning, for learning about teacher effectiveness and discovering new things you can do with your students, with regard to the classroom.

Siefried “Zig’ Englemann is chairman for the NIFDI organization, and he’s basically the father of Direct Instruction. If I could spend an hour with him I think that would be a tremendous experience. He is the expert in this area.

Here are some additional resources I used to research and select programs to implement:

  • The Best Evidence Encyclopedia provided through John Hopkins University is run by Robert Slavin, an expert on research-based school improvement, reading instruction, English-language learners, and federal education reform policy. When I researched the reading programs considered to be the most effective with kids and improving achievement, I found that Reading Mastery was coming up all the time, and so was Connecting Math Concepts for math.
  • What Works Clearinghouse is provided through USDOE. As practitioners, we need to be aware of research studies so we can justify programs to our boss—the Board of Education—as well as to our staff. We can also rest assured that the programs we are putting into place will make a significant impact on the kids, and student learning—which is what we are all interested in.
  • How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better – This study was provided several years ago by McKinsey & Company. If you are having difficulty improving student achievement in your district, and plan to try something different, look to this report for validation. It mentions Direct Instruction programs as something that can make a significant impact on student achievement.

Count on data management

To take the pulse on Direct Instruction’s impact, I would look at the SRA 2Inform data teachers are entering into the system reports on for progress reporting. This indicates how the kids are performing using DI programs, and allows me to address whether teachers require additional professional development.  If I see kids are lagging on the 2Inform data, this provides an opportunity to not only converse with the teacher, but to go in and observe what is going on in the classroom.

In classrooms during observations, I used the ConnectEd website frequently. I could go into a room during a lesson, bring up the exact page of the lesson the ConnectEd Website, and could interject during the course of the lesson. I could take the lesson over for a short period of time with the students, then would yield and allow the teacher to continue. The kids enjoyed the interaction, and the teachers appreciated it because it gave them a break—because you are constantly checking for understanding while you are teaching using DI.

Powered by professional learning

The most important part of success in the adoption of any program is job-embedded professional development. It’s critical not only for the building administrator, but for your staff. During a new implementation, if you don’t provide support for the teachers, your improvement initiative will fail. You’re not going to be successful—often the teachers revert back to old routines, and continue to do what they have been doing. You will be limited in your ability to significantly, effectively and rapidly improve student achievement. Focus in on the program being implemented with fidelity by engaging a consultant to come in and provide professional training.

I’ve always had a McGraw-Hill Education consultant come into my schools. I go in there with an expert who provides feedback to the teachers, and coaches them on some areas where they demonstrated challenges. More importantly, teachers gain the opportunity to form a dialogue and ask, “What can I do better?” to improve DI instruction.

About Author

Dr. Shawn K. Wightman, Superintendent, Marysville Public Schools, Michigan
Dr. Wightman has served in public education for over 20 years, first as a regular classroom teacher, then Title I Coordinator, Special Education instructor, to Building Administrator, and currently Superintendent.

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