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It’s Time For A Message Change

Victimhood! That’s the message Jamestown’s superintendent of schools gives to students, parents, and the community. Are you a member of the 70 percent poverty level he cites? According to Superintendent Apthorpe, that automatically makes you a member of the victim class! On free or reduced lunch? Victim! Come from a poor home? Victim! A discipline problem in school? Victim! Moreover, as a victim, you are traumatized, says Apthorpe.

What a disastrous, depressing message! When students learn to engage in the superintendent’s victimhood mentality, they fail to learn to take responsibility for their actions and their lives. They fail to see the possibilities ahead for themselves. They become academic failures in school.

Contrast Apthorpe’s victimhood mentality with that of Zig Engelmann, author and creator of multiple Direct Instruction (DI) programs for at-risk children. His message is: We’re going to provide you with the tools you need in order to succeed. We’re going to take you where you are and help you master the skills you will need to be successful. Using DI programs with strong teaching, children receive ample evidence that they are capable of learning, no matter their background.

Direct instruction doesn’t succumb to the current fad that students are being trained for a specific job in their community because that’s not the purpose of education. Businesses need people who can read and comprehend at high levels, have good command of the English language, are able to write, and to know math at the algebra level at a minimum. Those who have these skills then are trained by businesses for the specific needs of that business or industry.

Direct instruction follows this maxim: “If the child hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.” Engelmann wrote in “Preventing Failure in the Primary Grades” (also useful for other grades) that “[t]he premise from which all the procedures derive…is that the teacher is responsible for the learning and performance of the children.” Moreover, the focus is placed where it should be — on specific techniques that promote better learning. No floating standards. Learning in direct instruction schools is a sacred endeavor with its focus on academics, not on peripheral issues that serve as distraction.

Precious academic time is wasted when teachers choose superfluous arts and crafts activities for middle school students — even for elementary children — over academic work. Grade 5 children at Jefferson recently made yarn dolls, a noncontributor activity to academic development. Will making dolls and food tasting help bring down the extraordinarily high failure rate at this school? Was there no appropriate rebellion from 10-year-old boys to making dolls?

Engelmann created programs, then field-tested them with teachers on classes of students. If the teacher determined that the program had flaws, back to the drawing board he went. Again, the program was field-tested. Only when all children were learning was the program published.

Failure in Jamestown schools is not caused by global issues such as disintegration of the family or the lack of teacher motivation. No, the only reason children fail is that the teaching fails to start where children are and fails to provide the amount and type of practice they need to succeed. In other words, failure occurs because specific details of the curriculum are absent. To prevent failure, it is imperative that systematic instruction with copious review be implemented.

Rigorous research informs that the effect size is zero when teachers receive only information, theories, or demonstrations during staff development workshops. In other words, what teachers learn does not transfer to the classroom. Only when coaching and feedback are linked to theory, demonstration, and practice do we see transfer of training and learning to the classroom. The effect size then is a huge 1.68!

Coaching is essential for teachers who are learning how to teach direct instruction programs. Working individually with teachers, the coach helps them develop a high level of expertise. A direct instruction coach visits the district periodically over a period of months. Meaningful teacher commitment develops after implementation of direct instruction programs when teachers are given thorough training, coaching, adequate direction, and support.

Dr. Ben Carson, former neurosurgeon and current U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, grew up poor, but he never felt that he was a victim. His mother, Sonya Carson, a single parent raising two boys in the Boston area, saw to that. In a tribute to his mother on her passing, Dr. Carson said that his mother refused to engage in victim mentality. She understood that independence and hard work were the solutions to achievement and she passed that on to her children. Dr. Carson serves as a model for what can be achieved with study and hard work.

Victim mentality too frequently leads to entitlement mentality and the idea that victims’ lives cannot be changed. School, instead, should be the very place where the opposite message is instilled in students: School is where you learn to succeed. School is where you learn that you can have a better chance in life. School is where you learn to have hope. School is where knowledgeable teachers educate you. The key word being “educate.”

Superintendent Apthorpe needs to change his message! Our community needs to see far less failure in its schools. There are alternatives — if he is willing to open his mind.

Deann Nelson is a Jamestown resident.

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