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Interview with Siegfried Engelmann: one of America’s great educators

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Siegfried Engelmann is the real thing, an educator who loves to teach children and knows how to do it, both personally and in his many books. As far back as the late 1960s, he told the Education Establishment: you’re doing it all wrong.

Engelmann takes a scientific approach. He believes you formulate programs, test them, revise them, and keep repeating this process until you get solutions that give you the greatest success in the ordinary classroom.


Q: As you look at the entire field of education, what is the one thing that most offends you?

A: The disconnect between what occurs in classrooms and the rhetoric that describes it. There is never enough attention to the technical details that have to be addressed to provide well-designed instruction.

Q: You coined the phrase “academic child abuse” about 20 years ago. Are those words still appropriate today?

A: Nothing has changed. There are no provisions for schools to keep track of what works. Instead, schools adopt technically backward procedures and programs. Kids fail. The school district learns nothing more than to blindly try something else, which is usually cloaked in sweet rhetoric but is technical nonsense.

Q: Are you following Common Core? What is your appraisal?

A: A perfect example of technical nonsense. A sensible organization would rely heavily on data about procedures used to achieve outstanding results; and they would certainly field test the results to assure that the standards resulted in fair, achievable goals? How many of these things did they do? None.

Q: Reflect for a moment on official excuses. Rudolf Flesch wrote a chapter called “The Ten Alibis.” What are the big whoppers today?

A: The biggest one is that if kids have reasonable attendance and fail, the kids, their parent, and the home are responsible. No, the school is the designated agency for instructing kids and should be held accountable. Usually, it is not difficult to show the failure was caused by faulty instruction and lack of response to evidence that the kids were in trouble.

Q: There was a time, 1968-1977, when your ideas were thoroughly tested and they won overwhelmingly (see photo and caption). But they were ignored. Was that the biggest disappointment?

A: It was pretty devastating. From the beginning of Project Follow Through, there was the promise that the models of instruction that performed best would be disseminated by the feds. We won every category, but the feds changed the rules and didn’t disseminate any information—and even denied that there were any winners. That was after we worked with our schools for ten years.

Q: Do most people think of you as the creator of Direct Instruction?

A: Not many people know what Direct Instruction is. The only program that is selling well and that continues to have high ratings is Teach your child to read in 100 easy lessons. On it has over 1000 reviews, most highly favorable. Even though the Direct Instruction programs we developed have strong data of effectiveness, they account for less than 2% of school sales.

Q: Now my sense is that you engaged in an heroic battle with the Education Establishment. How do you view that battle now?

A: We lost at every turn. We have not been able to influence decision-makers to treat instruction of kids and training of teachers as technical enterprises that feed on data.

Q: The other day I was reading about Blouke Carus and his battle with the Education Establishment. I have written about John Saxon’s battle. Flesch waged a long, often sad battle. Samuel Blumenfeld is still battling. My sense is that all the best people in education, such as yourself, came from outside. Is that true? How do you explain it?

A: To receive a traditional graduate degree in education is to receive a makeover that places great emphasis on broad brush strokes, with virtually no regard for the specific realities that face teachers and kids in the classroom. You could take nearly any heavily degreed person into a classroom where horrific instruction was being committed. If the teacher seemed moderate and the kids seemed engaged, the observer would not be able to list any of many technical details that made the teaching a disaster.

Q: Let’s talk about the big secrets that the average parent needs to know.

A: How the system works and what would have to change to make it more closely aligned with its rhetoric. For example, the system knows only what the current game plan is. The system adopts instructional programs and practices that have never been tried out on a small scale—like the Common Core standards. The same is true of many instructional programs. They are adopted, then tried out for the first time. That is completely backward.

Q: What is the second most unpleasant secret about education?

A: Probably the lack of proper preparation that future teachers receive in college. It is largely big-picture orientations with almost no emphasis on technical skills that make a difference in the classroom.

Q: With regard to reading, do you see improvement or are you pessimistic?

A: I’ve told several districts that if they turned management of their lowest-performing schools over to someone (like me) who has knowledge of how to change it, these schools could be totally successful in three years. That holds for reading and all other subjects. I’ve never had a taker, so I’m pessimistic about the depth of their concern with failed teachers and kids.

Q: My own sense is that sight-words are still a curse on the country. How do you see it?

A: If a school looked at student failure as failure of the school to teach, sight-words would have been removed from reading instruction before 1950.

Q: If you could issue a warning to this country, what would it be?

A: Recognize that schools do some very destructive things. They use “discovery” math. The formula is to give kids math problems without systematically teaching what they need to solve the problem. If the number of tears a kid produces is a rough measure of how inhumane the practice is, it’s ruthless. What kids learn from failure is simply that they are failures (and they hate math). Teach your kids how to solve these problems.

Q: My own sense is that education is a gloomy field and that some very corrupt people seem determined to make it worse, even as they tell us what a wonderful job they are doing. Can you give some reasons why I’m wrong and we should be optimistic?

A: No!


In the video of Engelmann teaching (below), you see a small group of children learning math. Note their enthusiasm and confidence. That is Engelmann’s World.

Compare what you see in this video with a recent headline: “Principals say Common Core tests make little kids vomit, pee their pants.” That is the world wrought by our Education Establishment.

QED: Every state should cancel Common Core, and take advantage of Engelmann's proven strategies.

VIDEO: Siegfried Engelmann teaches kids in 1966 (28 minutes)



Siegfried Engelmann's site

National Institute for Direct Instruction site.




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