Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Direct Instruction may spread throughout disadvantaged Australian schools

It's happening. The Direct Instruction educational methodology initiated by Noel Pearson in some Cape York indigenous schools will be spread to other disadvantaged schools throughout Australia by the Abbott government.

Some extracts from the article in today's Australian, (the link is behind a pay wall), Noel Pearson's Cape plan can help all disadvantaged kids by Patricia Karvelas, with some questioning footnotes by me.
THE radical direct instruction teaching model has transformed education in Cape York communities and could benefit disadvantaged children across the country, says the parliamentary secretary charged with helping Tony Abbott deliver his indigenous affairs agenda.

Victorian MP Alan Tudge, who has just completed a trip to the Cape York community of Aurukun, where direct instruction is operating, says although formal data is inconclusive (1), he was overwhelmed by the difference he saw at the schools.

The Prime Minister has approached Cape York indigenous leader Noel Pearson to review the education of all disadvantaged and impoverished children and explore rolling out the direct instruction teaching model in schools across the nation...

"School attendance has improved markedly and kids are clearly engaged and learning," Mr Tudge said. "While the formal evaluation, released two months ago, was inconclusive due to lack of data (1), there is certainly great optimism by many about the direct instruction method coupled with strong attendance measures." ...

Mr Tudge said the government would commit $22 million to support "proven explicit teaching methods" into other schools. "We are also absolutely determined to ensure that school attendance is improved," he said. "We need to do things differently because there are systemic breakdowns in many places where kids are years behind or functionally illiterate when finishing primary school.

"It starts with attendance; no child will keep up if they are only attending half the time. In the Northern Territory, only 13 per cent of remote indigenous kids are attending 80 per cent of the time (2)"

Mr Tudge said research suggested explicit, phonics-based teaching methods were necessary for children who were behind or struggling. "The strength of the direct instruction model is that it appears to be a system that can be replicated and is not reliant on a single brilliant individual or team to make it work (3)," he said.

Mr Pearson said that when the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy was set up in 2010, the three schools involved were among Queensland's most disadvantaged "but one of them, Aurukun, was undoubtedly the worst school in Queensland".

"Our goal was to turn these poor schools into fair schools," Mr Pearson said. "And then we want to turn fair schools into good schools. And after than we want good schools to become great schools (4). I am very confident after three years that Aurukun is now a fair school. That means if you send your child to that school, your child will receive the education he or she deserves.
(1) If formal data is inconclusive then that is a big worry. Alan Tudge's feeling about being overwhelmed at the differences he has seen is unfortunately not good enough. The history of educational reform is that new methods have been used, sometimes for decades without clear evidence that they work. The research base for effective teaching does need to be clear.

(2) Getting kids to attend remote indigenous schools is a major problem. As well as having good schools that are worth attending (the pull factor) the problem of having parents being committed to send their kids to school is just as important (the push factor). The way this is being tackled in Cape York is through the Family Responsibility Commission. See Catherine Ford's brilliant Great Expectations essay for more details about how problematic this issue is.

(3) I agree strongly with this point. Other methods might work but they don't scale to mass delivery because of their complexity and / or reliance on a brilliant or inspirational teacher.

(4) While agreeing that Direct Instruction (and MULTILIT) is great teaching the basics I'm wondering if Noel Pearson is thinking that other methodologies may be also required to make the transition from fair to good to great. This would be consistent with the dialectical "radical centre" thinking articulated in some of his essays.

Update (13th November): Evaluation of the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy Initiative for Department of Education Training and Employment Queensland. Prepared by Australian Council for Educational Research, June 2013 (pdf, 93pp)

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