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Is Direct Instruction a School-Equity Issue?

The Seattle Times recently profiled a high-poverty elementary school in Auburn, Wash., that has seen a dramatic rise in student test scores partly as the result of an aggressive emphasis on direct instruction—a highly structured, teacher-guided method that often relies heavily on drills and repetition. 

In response to the article, Jack Schneider, an assisant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., writes that direct instruction presents a quandary for educators. On the one hand, he says, it can indeed to help students' acquire basic skills and do better on standardized tests (as research shows). On the other, it embodies a highly restrictive view of learning:

"But the strengths of the program are also its weaknesses. The program narrows the aims of education and leaves little room for creativity, spontaneity and play in the classroom. Although test scores may go up, the improvement is not without a cost." 

Schneider also notes that direct instruction tends to be used predominantly—often out of necessity—in lower-income schools "where students are in desperate need of basic skills." For him, this creates an equity divide in the types of learning experiences students are getting:

"I do want all students to develop necessary skills. But I also want them to see school as a place of exploration and wonder, to develop their passions, to cultivate their interests and to delight in their own discoveries. I want all students to be able to compute; but I also want them to create. I want them to write in paragraphs; but I also want them to write poetry. ..."

"Direct Instruction is fine as a temporary solution. But such programs do not create equal schooling experiences. Nor will they ever. Not as long as children enter school at vastly different levels of readiness, and with sizable disparities in the support they receive. Not as long as we fail to address the deeper issues that deny children opportunities."

At the same time, a former teacher quoted in The Seattle Times article suggests that the direct instruction and more expansive approaches to teaching are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, they can be seen as closely related. "Because our kids have the practice and repetition," he said, "they are able to take the concepts and skills and apply them to complex problem-solving activities because they really understand them."

Update, June 6, 2014: Some Twitter reaction from teachers:

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