The Pet Goat Approach
Ohanian Comment: I hope maybe this will convince people to stop calling things like Direct Instruction "conservative." Too often, we think things we don't like are the opposite of our politics. No Child Left behind isn't a conservative agenda. It's a corporate agenda which politicians of all political slants embrace.
DEPT. OF EDUCATION
Although you do not know his name, Siegfried (Zig) Engelmann is one of the most talked-about authors in the country right now. His most prominent work, which you have not read, is a story for second graders. It begins, “A girl got a pet goat.”
Engelmann’s story is the one that George W. Bush was reading in a Florida classroom on the morning of September 11, 2001, at the moment he learned of the terrorist attacks. A videotape of the President holding the book open while staring blankly into space for seven minutes provides the most memorable scene in Michael Moore’s movie “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Engelmann has not seen the film, but when he heard about his secondhand cameo he reread his story. “I don’t remember writing it,” he said the other day from his office at the University of Oregon, in Eugene. That may be because it is one of more than a thousand he has written in the past thirty years.
Curious viewers of Moore’s film who have tried to track down the book “My Pet Goat” have been unsuccessful, for two reasons: Moore, in his voice-over, got the title wrong—it is “The Pet Goat”—and it is not a book but an exercise in a workbook called “Reading Mastery 2.” This much was sussed out last month by a resourceful blogger named Peter Smith after he studied the raw footage from the Emma E. Booker Elementary School. Noticing that the teacher repeatedly cued the class with the same precise language (“Get ready to read these words the fast way”), Smith guessed that some particular pedagogical theory was at work. That’s what led him to Direct Instruction, a controversial teaching model that Engelmann developed in the nineteen-sixties.
“The whole idea is to do an efficient job with every single kid,” Engelmann, who is seventy-two and is a professor of education, said. His basic principle is that if a child isn’t learning it is always because the teacher is doing something to confuse him. Direct Instruction aims to eliminate that problem by introducing bite-size concepts that build directly on ones that have already been mastered, and by scripting every word of every lesson, including which words of encouragement teachers may and may not use. As the D.I. Web site puts it, “The popular valuing of teacher creativity and autonomy as high priorities must give way to a willingness to follow certain carefully prescribed instructional practices.”
“We don’t give a damn what the teacher thinks, what the teacher feels,” Engelmann said. “On the teachers’ own time they can hate it. We don’t care, as long as they do it.” Engelmann claims that Direct Instruction is one of the few teaching methods that have been consistently shown to improve student achievement, especially among disadvantaged children. “Traditionalists die over this,” he said. “But in terms of data we whump the daylights out of them.”
For years, Direct Instruction’s impressive performance in large-scale studies did little to win over his critics, who call his techniques “controlling” and “robotic.” D.I.’s phonics-based reading curriculum—Engelmann has also applied his principles to math, science, social studies, and handwriting—sometimes requires children to chant words in unison while a teacher snaps her fingers to keep time.
D.I.’s fortunes began to change in 2001, when Bush introduced his No Child Left Behind legislation, which mandated that only “scientifically based” educational programs be eligible for federal funding. And here’s where Michael Moore missed an opportunity. No Child Left Behind has meant big profits for the publisher of the D.I. curricula, McGraw-Hill. So it’s easy to imagine one of Moore’s hallmark montages, spinning circumstantial evidence into a conspirational web: a sepia-toned photograph from the thirties of, say, Prescott Bush and James McGraw, Jr., palling around on Florida’s Jupiter Island; a film clip from the eighties of Harold McGraw, Jr., joining the advisory panel of Barbara Bush’s literacy foundation; Harold McGraw III posing with President George W. Bush as part of his transition team; and, to tie it all together, former McGraw-Hill executive vice-president John Negroponte being sworn in as the new Ambassador to Iraq.
One person who wouldn’t be included in such a conspiracy is Zig Engelmann. Engelmann calls himself a “political rebel,” but his inclinations are hard left. He hasn’t decided if he will vote for John Kerry, Ralph Nader, some alternative progressive party, or nobody at all. He is not fond of Bush. “For whatever it’s worth, I think Iraq is a total circle jerk,” he said. “I couldn’t think of how to do it worse.”
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