Noel Pearson has vowed to “double down” on his signature rollout of Direct Instruction teaching in bush schools as the $23.5 million literacy trial nears its end and thousands of indigenous students who benefited face uncertainty.
After 2½ years, reading rates improved across the board in the 39 participating schools, even though Mr Pearson conceded that half the schools had failed to make a success of DI.
The Cape York Peninsula indigenous leader championed the controversial back-to-basics teaching method after piloting it successfully in schools on his home turf in north Queensland.
Mr Pearson’s Good to Great Schools Australia organisation was paid $23.5m to deliver DI for reading and writing into mainly indigenous schools in remote parts of the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland. Some trialled a less-scripted form of DI known as Explicit Instruction.
When the program kicked off in 2015, just 8 per cent of the 3244 prep-school, primary and high-school-aged children were assessed at Year 2 level or above.
The federal funding for the program expires this year.
GGSA managing director Julie Grantham said data for reading and language showed that about a third of students were now at that level or above. Of the 39 schools, 20 had made strong progress.
The Weekend Australian was given exclusive access to Alice Springs’ Yipirinya School, and Ntaria School at nearby Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory. The initially reluctant principals said DI — although derided by critics as a “drill to kill” throwback to rote learning — had made a decisive difference, allowing students who had started with zero scores in literacy to read, write and, in some cases, exceed the norm for their age group.
“I have to say that it’s put all the ducks in a row. You have got kids who know what they are learning, who have a structure to show them where they are going with … behaviour that is built in, in a positive way,” said Cath Greene of Ntaria School.
Yipirinya principal Lorraine Sligar said: “We are having the wonderful dilemma of dealing with kids reading above their age level.”
Mr Pearson said the trial had demonstrated that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and schools in the country could learn if there was an effective instructional program.
Under DI, the teacher must follow tightly scripted lesson plans that unfold in a set sequence. The program, developed in the US in the 1970s to help underprivileged African-American city children, has been criticised for stifling creativity in the classroom, a proposition rejected by both Ms Greene and Ms Sligar.
Mr Pearson said he would ask Education Minister Simon Birmingham to extend funding to “consolidate” the gains of successful schools, not expand the rollout. For now, the priority was to broaden DI in those 20 schools from English to maths.
“This is a crisis but we have to hasten slowly,” Mr Pearson said. “Let’s grow those little green shoots because it’s more important that we’ve got 20 schools to show the other 200 what’s possible than for us to run ahead with schools that are not serious about this.
“Where we have seen leadership at the school level, we have seen the students’ achievement rise — that is why we are proposing to double down on the 20 or so schools that have got behind the program and seen the results of their commitment.”
In a statement, Senator Birmingham said yesterday the government had commissioned an independent review of the DI trial to “identify the best pathway forward”.
Ms Greene said she had already lost the DI implementation manager at Ntaria, who was on contract from the US, because of uncertainty about the program’s future. But she was adamant DI would continue for the school’s 200 students, one way or another. “It’s not going to die,” she said.