Time for a closer look at the merits of DI

(A page from a Direct Instruction student workbook)

Since 2014, a major concern for the AEU, our members and members of many school communities has been the Giles Government’s decision to implement the recommendations of the Indigenous education review conducted by consultant Bruce Wilson.

One of the major components of the new strategy is the use of the Direction Instruction program in 19 Northern Territory public schools. The DI program is championed by Education Minister Peter Chandler as a success.

However, two recent reports which deal with DI (among other things) provide important insights and cause for reflection.

Parliamentary report

The first is a report issued in May this year by a federal bipartisan parliamentary inquiry. The AEU and many others made submissions. The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs began its inquiry in September last year. Its terms of reference covered key aspects of educational opportunities and outcomes for ATSI students up to school leaving age.

The Committee’s interim report, ‘First Steps for Improving Educational Opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students’, was tabled on 4 May 2016. The report made a number of interesting comments in relation to ABSTUDY, boarding schools and girls’ programs.

There was bipartisan support for the report’s critique of Direct Instruction. Tabling the report, Sharman Stone, the Committee Chair, said:

Despite significant Commonwealth investment of some $22 million over four years, the effectiveness of this pedagogy, this US-based design, has not been independently evaluated. Nor have outcomes been compared with other forms of instruction in Australia. The committee is of the view that direct instruction should not receive additional funds from the Commonwealth until an independent, comprehensive and longitudinal study, or review, finds the teaching methods to be effective in delivering improved outcomes for the majority of Indigenous students. We believe it is very important for comparisons to be made between this particular form of instruction… and other alternative ways of instructing Indigenous children from their earliest entry into primary school. (House of Reps Hansard, May 4, 2016)

Deputy Chair Warren Snowdon also emphasised the strong need for independent validation of what Direct Instruction is actually doing:

I have spoken to educators [whom he also refers to as ‘refugees from direct instruction’] who are using part of direct instruction in the Northern Territory who are most concerned about it. I know of one community I visited recently where the parents have expressed grave concern… [T]hese are issues we need to confront. I do not believe necessarily that importing a model of education like this from the United States and having schools in Australia report to people in the United States is the best thing. (House of Reps Hansard, May 4, 2016)

Warren Snowdon also put the view that there needs to be more investigation into whether investing a lot of money into taking kids out of communities to go to school is the best use of funds. He suggests that a better alternative might be to ‘front-load’ the investment into early childhood education (ECE).

Instead of putting resources in there (ECE) we are putting them in post-primary school, into high school, into boarding facilities, but if we have to prioritise our investment we should probably get the best educational outcome over the longer term by putting that money into early childhood education. I believe very strongly that we need to think strategically about where the best fit for the investment is… how we provide needs based funding to remote schools, how we resource teachers properly and how we hold state and territory governments to account for their investment in public education. (House of Reps Hansard, May 4, 2016)

The Committee heard a number of concerns from parents and teachers in the Cape York area, and in written submissions and hearings, that Direct Instruction was not an effective teaching method in their schools.

In light of these observations and evidence, the Committee expresses its grave concern regarding the effectiveness of this teaching approach for students of all ages and the extent to which it can equip students for future opportunities. While acknowledging that the pedagogy may be of value in the earliest years in literacy and numeracy fundamentals, it appeared to be limiting for older students studying other subjects. Although it has not undertaken a comprehensive inquiry into this teaching practice, the Committee feels compelled to state its concerns in this Interim Report.

The Committee goes further and questions the independence and scope of the review into the Commonwealth’s funding of Direct Instruction ($22 million over four years from 2013-14 to 2016-17) being undertaken by the Centre for Program Evaluation, MGSE at the University of Melbourne, which was selected by Good to Great Schools Australia.

…the Committee is concerned that this evaluation is not comprehensive or independent from the organisation delivering the pedagogy, and notes that the evaluation focuses more on the delivery of Direct Instruction rather than its effectiveness or comparisons with other teaching methods. The Committee is therefore of the view that Direct Instruction and Explicit Direct Instruction should be reviewed by a truly independent evaluator, with comprehensive terms of reference that incorporate comparative studies and longitudinal measures of its effectiveness…

Organisations such as Good to Great Schools Australia have been delivering Direct Instruction and Explicit Direct Instruction in Australian schools since 2010. The Committee is of the strong view that the efficacy of this pedagogy should now be comprehensively reviewed. The Committee urges Commonwealth and State Education Ministers to carefully consider Direct Instruction in schools. From its observations and evidence, this Committee is unable to support the use of Direct Instruction in all schools for all grades. The Committee recommends that no additional financial support for Direct Instruction be available until an independent, comprehensive and longitudinal review finds the teaching method to be effective in delivering improved outcomes for the majority of students.

Because of the magnitude of the issues before the Inquiry, the Committee recommended that the inquiry resume post-election. The AEU will certainly be pursuing this issue with vigour.

Cape York review

The other report of note is a review commissioned by the Queensland Government into Aurukun School in Cape York, following violence that led to staff being evacuated and the school closed in May. The Cape York schools were used as a model for the NT and an argument in support of implementing Direction Instruction.

One of the findings of the review was that Aurukun should move away from such a narrow focus on DI:

The review found that the school is not providing the full Australian Curriculum to its students through the current approach. It is the conclusion of this review that the richness of schooling has been compromised by the pressure of delivering literacy and numeracy using only the DI approach. Going forward, a more balanced approach, contextualised for the Aurukun community, is required.

To deliver this effectively, teachers must be better supported in their professional development and professional growth beyond a sole focus on DI. The review found that a key focus of the school improvement action plan must be the analysis and use of student performance data by teachers and school leaders, and an understanding of high-yield pedagogies to complement DI.

These comments are pertinent in our context; the AEU has received a number of complaints from members about the DI program leaving little or no time in the rest of the school day for other learning areas. This problem will likely intensify as DI maths is introduced in more schools in the second half of this year.

We should also point out that we have received positive reports about the program from members in a number of schools. The AEU is not of the view that this program has no value, however should warrant more scrutiny, rather than the uncritical praise it is currently receiving from Minister Chandler.

In light of the parliamentary report and the Queensland review, our Branch will write to the NT Department of Education requesting a response.

Members working in DI schools are encouraged to contact us to share their views confidentially, both positive and negative, relating to DI.