The Dalmatian and Its Spots
At least part of the problem
educators have in establishing effective instruction has to do with the
illogical recommendations that researchers make. This illogical reasoning
occurs in just about all research-based recommendations since 1985, when
"Becoming a Nation of Readers" was published.
This illogical practice is the confusion about what follows from a true statement. Here's a noneducational example:
If a dog is a Dalmatian, it
Therefore, if a dog has spots, it is a Dalmatian.
The first statement is true.
The second statement doesn't follow from the first.
The probable response from most readers is that nobody could be naive enough not to recognize this flaw. English setters, some terriers, sheepdogs, and many mutts have spots. Unfortunately, there are many educational parallels to the argument that all dogs with spots are Dalmatians. Here's one:
If a beginning-reading program is highly effective, it has various features: phonics, phonemic awareness, and so on. Therefore, if a program has these features, it will be highly effective.
Current reform practices revolve
around this logic, but the logic is as flawed when it refers to effective
programs as it is when it refers to Dalmatians.
Here's how the flawed reasoning
occurs. Investigations like that of the 2000 report of the National Reading
Panel start by sorting through research studies to identify specific programs
that work. Call this group of programs Dalmatians.
Next, the investigators analyze
the group of Dalmatians to identify their common features. Call each feature
a spot. They find that the more effective beginning-reading programs
have common features (phonics, phonemic awareness, decodable text, oral
practice formats, and others). So they have formulated the true statement
parallel to: If a program is a Dalmatian, it has spots. (If it
is an effective program, it has the common features A through N.)
Next, investigators formulate
their flawed recommendations, which assert (or imply) that if a program
has phonics, phonemic awareness, decodable text, oral practice formats,
and so forth, it will be highly effective. In other words, the investigators'
conclusion is parallel to the conclusion, If a dog has spots, it is
The conclusion has no logical
basis. There is a lot more to a Dalmatian than having spots, and a lot
more to programs that generate superior outcomes than having the features
that are specified in recommendations. The additional features would include
the amount of new material introduced on each lesson, the nature of the
reviews that children receive, the ways in which the program tests mastery,
the number of times something is presented in a structured context before
it occurs in other contexts, and many more technical details about how
the material is sequenced and field-tested.
But the investigators do not
simply flunk Logic 101. They set the stage for a daisy chain of illogic.
Because the analysis has removed spots from Dalmatians, they are no longer
Dalmatian spots, just spots. So the analysis moves from a more careful
articulation of each Dalmatian (effective program) to an elaboration
of spots, now freed from the constraints of the effective program.
Phonemic awareness is a spot. The analysis of the spot goes something like this: "Let's see, there are different types of phonemic-awareness activities. There's oral blending, rhyming, alliteration, segmentation, phoneme insertion, and phoneme deletion. Therefore, any combination of these activity types would meet the requirement of phonemic awareness, and the best versions of phonemic awareness would have all types."
If researchers conduct experiments
to validate their notion of phonemic awareness, they typically don't compare
their results with those of a highly effective program in terms of total
time required and the performance outcomes. They are satisfied if their
intervention results in a gain in performance on some standardized measure.
Note that the illogical formula
for the design of programs would create benefits for districts that were
using programs that had no spots. A program constructed from spots would
probably produce results better than those of the programs the districts
are using. So if a little better is what districts want, that's what the
"spots first" reasoning will probably deliver. Unfortunately,
the criteria become a double-edged sword that may reject truly effective
The full circle of the daisy
chain occurs when a state takes these "research based" recommendations
and uses them as adoption criteria for programs that are supposed to be
effective, but rejects a true Dalmatian because it does not meet the "standards"
the state has set. For instance, a "standard" might indicate
that the program had to have the full range of phonemic-awareness exercises
(including activities that are ill-suited for beginning at-risk students,
like phoneme deletion). If effective program X does not have all of
them, it fails to meet a "research based" standard, even
though it is highly effective and there is no evidence that the adopted
programs are effective.
Not only is this type of reasoning
possible, it happens with frightening regularity. For instance, California's
Ventura County Star carried an article on March 15, 2003, titled
"Effective Reading Program Must Go. " A school in the district,
it said, "was the only school in Ventura County and one of 109 in
the state to get the citation ... for showing exemplary progress."
The district was replacing the program with one that has no strong data
of effectiveness, but that had been adopted by California because it meets
the state "standards."
The county superintendent justified
the move this way: "We want to make sure all schools are using the
same curriculum. Why not something based on the standards that are going
to be taught?" So in the end, the state not only identifies mutts
as Dalmatians, but rejects true Dalmatians because they don't meet the
state-created definition of "Dalmatians."
The solution is to excise this
medieval logic and to be more straightforward about identifying specific
programs that work, without pretending that the analysts are able
to identify the full set of variables that make the program effective.
This is not to say that the criteria for effective instruction are unspecifiable,
only that the current standards are far from specifying them, and the
effort of trying may be misplaced. If the goal is to identify programs
that are effective, why not take the most direct route and simply identify
them without the questionable analyses?
Another problem with "research
based" recommendations is that the investigators apparently do not
research the skill and capacities of the consumer of instructional practices
(aside from possible verbal reports). The result is that even if their
analysis disclosed all the vital characteristics of effective programs,
their recommendations for using the evidence on effective instruction
would completely lack research support.
For example, the April 2000
"Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read"
discusses phonemic awareness, and the panel makes this recommendation:
"There are many ways to teach [phonemic awareness] effectively. In
implementing [phonemic-awareness] instruction, teachers need to evaluate
the methods they use against measured success in their own students."
The assumptions are that a mix-and-match
creation by the typical teacher will be effective, and that the teacher
knows how to evaluate the methods he or she uses against measured success.
There is no data showing that typical teachers are able to successfully
combine components to make superior instruction, and none to suggest that
a significant number of them have the knowledge or the resources needed
to operate on the implications of "measured success," particularly
if they are unaware of what a truly effective program is able to achieve.
Before issuing this recommendation, a research-based panel would first
have gathered data to address some practical issues:
How many years would it take
for an average teacher to "discover" or "create" an
excellent combination (given that it would be hard to try out more than
one or two combinations a year in a classroom)? What kinds of records
would be needed to make this enterprise systematic? How does this pursuit
fit in with the district-adopted program and practices? Where does the
teacher get the funds and the time that may be necessary to evaluate the
Two issues are even more serious:
What concern do we have for the children who are being subjected to the
teachers' experimentations, particularly if it takes the assiduous teacher
years to come up with a program that has sufficient "measured success"?
What in the history and demography of teachers in failed schools suggests
that more than a very small percentage of them would be able to develop
highly effective packages without extensive training?
The ultimate products of the
National Reading Panel's spots-first logic are implications that true
Dalmatians are not really Dalmatians. "[I]t is more common for phonics
programs to present a fixed sequence of lessons scheduled from the beginning
to the end of the school year," its report says. "In light of
this, teachers need to be flexible in their phonics instruction in order
to adapt it to individual student needs."
The central problem with this
appraisal is that to accept it, one would have to deny that Dalmatians
are Dalmatians. Highly effective programs have a fixed sequence. When
the panel calls for adapting instruction to individual student needs,
it is implying that the successful sequences are not successful, and that
the teacher will be able to improve on the program by deviating from the
program's "fixed sequence."
In fact, the highly successful
program has evidence of being successful with the full range of beginning
readers. This range comprises great variation in "individual student
needs." The panel doesn't have to know how the program does it, but
the panel must accept the evidence that the program must have successful
procedures for accommodating "the needs of individual students."
Certainly, teachers would have
to be trained to use the effective program to achieve individualization,
but training would present specific practices that have been demonstrated
to be effective and efficient. Teachers would not be encouraged to make
changes in the sequence before they were very familiar with the details
of the program. The training would show how to group children homogeneously,
how to place them appropriately in the sequence. Groups may be started
in different parts of the sequence and may be moved through the sequence
at different rates, with lower performers repeating some lessons, and
higher performers skimming parts of the sequence.
If the program is a Dalmatian,
however, it has provisions for placing children, teaching them to mastery,
and accelerating their performance. Researchers would learn a great deal
about both program design and training if they studied effective programs
carefully before drawing conclusions about what it takes to be
Siegfried Engelmann is a professor of education at the University of Oregon, in Eugene, Ore., and the director of the National Institute for Direct Instruction, located there.
� 2003 Editorial Projects in Education Vol. 23, number 20, page 48,34,35