Wisconsin’s teacher-led insurgency
By Mark Schug, Ph.D., Sara Tarver, Ph.D. and Richard Western, Ph.D.
This report addresses the teaching of early reading in Wisconsin. It focuses initially on a curious set of facts. There exists an approach to teaching early reading — an approach called Direct Instruction — that has been shown by research and experience to work very well. Given the track record of this approach, and given the undisputed importance of getting children off to a good start in reading, one might suppose that Wisconsin’s leading educators would be seen hard at work implementing Direct Instruction, striving to learn more about it, and helping new teachers to get started using it. But that is not the case. Many of Wisconsin’s leading educators ignore Direct Instruction altogether, and others smear it by misrepresentation and ridicule when they speak of it at all. As a result, most K-12 teachers move through their careers learning little about Direct Instruction, despite its record of success in fostering student learning. One can get some sense of how odd this is by trying to imagine, say, Wisconsin medical schools and hospitals in which the senior staff take no interest in the germ theory of disease and go out of their way to dis- courage doctors and nurses from making use of the medical practices that theory implies.
Yet despite this general climate of indifference and hostility, there has emerged in Wisconsin a sort of insurgency movement led by teachers and principals who have learned about Direct Instruction on their own and who have found their own ways to begin implementing Direct Instruction programs in their schools. Several schools in the Milwaukee area and elsewhere in the state now use Direct Instruction to some degree in their early reading programs, and the movement is spreading as more and more teachers learn about Direct Instruction from their colleagues.
Altogether, it is an intriguing state of affairs. Why would some educators oppose a teaching method that has a strong research base and an expanding base of support among classroom teachers who swear that it works better than anything else they have ever tried? Do the skeptics suppose that teachers suffer from a surfeit of pedagogical riches — burdened down by their attachment to so many successful methods for teaching reading that acquiring one more would amount to vulgar excess? And why would some classroom teachers buck the tide — working on their own, often at a considerable cost in time and effort, to learn and implement a teaching method that differs greatly from the methods most of them have been trained and encouraged to use? Can we learn anything from this controversy that might suggest improved policy and practice in the teaching of early reading?
To explore these questions, we have reviewed scholarship about Direct Instruction, especially as it pertains to teaching early reading. We have surveyed recent graduates of teacher training programs in Wisconsin, in order to learn about the extent to which Direct Instruction was emphasized in their training programs. And we have visited in six schools, observing teachers at work and discussing (with them and their principals) their schools’ experiences with Direct Instruction. In the report that follows we discuss results from these inquiries in light of the controversy noted above. The discussion concludes with some observations about the high cost of failure in the teaching of reading. To get started, however, we begin with a brief note describing Direct Instruction.