I did not intend to comment on the recent trouble in the remote community of Aurukun which has seen teachers evacuated until at least July. However, by now many of you will have read this piece in The Guardian in which a former principal of the Cape York Academy in Aurukun lays some blame for the issues at the introduction of Direct Instruction in the school. So I felt the need to comment.
The model of Direct Instruction used in Cape York is not just any generic form of teacher-led instruction. It is a specific and highly structured curriculum developed in the U.S. using the model of Siegfried Engelmann and colleagues. Direct Instruction programs of this kind are developed according to a set of principles that are set out in Engelmann and Carnine’s book, ‘Theory of Instruction’. But it doesn’t stop there because each program is then extensively field-tested and revised according to these field tests.
The Guardian article suggests two plausible ways in which Direct Instruction could be linked to the carjackings and attacks on teacher accommodation that have been reported in the media. Firstly, it is suggested that many strong teachers are not keen to teach the program. Chris Sarra runs a different education program through his ‘Stronger Smarter Institute’. He has been a longtime critic of Direct Instruction and, in my view, has been perhaps a little unfair. He is quoted as saying, “One of the great tragedies in all of this is not only kids disengaging but exceptional quality teachers disengaged and walking away as well.”
It is certainly true that Direct Instruction has a poor reputation in Australia, partly due to attacks by Sarra and others and partly because it is at odds with the prevailing educational orthodoxy of child-centred learning. Its use of scripted lessons may also not appeal to teachers who see this as an attack on their autonomy. If this means that Cape York can only recruit low quality teachers then this could lead to a downward spiral at the school which could have a broader community impact.
It is also plausible that there is community resentment at the fact that Direct Instruction is an American program that has not been tailored to meet local cultural needs. I remember reviewing the Direct Instruction “Expressive Writing” curriculum, finding it scattered with Americanisms and wondering whether Australian teachers and their students would fare well with it.
Sarra makes the interesting suggestion that, “If government was serious about providing quality education they could spend $150,000 over 12 months and have a specialist curriculum writer go to Aurukun, live in Aurukun, sit down with people and design a local school curriculum.”
This might be a great idea. Unfortunately, it would be pretty hard to design a Direct Instruction curriculum in this way. There are few, if any, people in Australia who are able to design an Engelmann-style program. If we could find such a curriculum designer – or perhaps buy one in from the U.S. – then the curriculum is only the start of the process due to the requirement for extensive field-testing. Much is made of the fact that Direct Instruction is an expensive intervention but I seriously doubt whether many people are getting rich out of it. The expense pays for the costly way that the programs are produced. I would be interested to see an Australian home-grown set of Direct Instruction programs but I can see why Cape York took the pragmatic choice of buying the American ones.
I think the Guardian article is misleading in the way that it compares the Direct Instruction curriculum in Aurukun with, “the regular Australian curriculum” used by Pormpurraw which is run by the Stronger Smarter Institute. These are very different things. The Australian curriculum is essentially a series of bullet-points and contains far less detail and nothing about individual lessons. Schools can implement it however they like and it is therefore much cheaper to produce and free to use because it is provided by government. Whatever Pormpurraw are doing, it is not simply implementing this curriculum. There must be much more to it than that.
The low-cost success at Pormpurraw is good to see and it is a credit to Sarra and his institute. However, I am not convinced that this is evidence that the approach works better than Direct Instruction because there are many other factors that might plausibly vary between Aurukun and Pormpurraw. If we just look at Aurukun itself then it seems that the introduction of Direct Instruction has been correlated with some improvements in attendance and results. So it might be having a positive effect.
We also have to acknowledge that there is a lot going on at Aurukun. It was interesting to read this piece on the BBC news website about the same series of events. It doesn’t mention Direct Instruction at all but it does suggest the following:
- The community has a history of unrest and violence, caused by complex factors including alcohol and drug abuse, family breakdown, and long-standing tensions between the five clans which make up the 1,300-strong community.
- Residents and community support staff say that Aurukun’s mostly law-abiding population is angered by the actions of about 30 “disengaged” children and young people believed to be responsible for most of the recent disturbances.
- Locals are frustrated at an apparent failure of government to provide adequate security for teachers and what they see as a softly-softly approach by Aurukun police. Footage circulated earlier this month showed officers standing by during a public brawl.
- Aurukun has been a testing-ground for policies such as “income management”, where welfare payments are credited to a card which can only be used to buy food and essential supplies.
- An ‘influx’ of new faces to the police force has eroded community support.
- There are ongoing disputes about the use of Aboriginal land for a bauxite mine and about a nurse who faked his credentials and is currently facing trial.
- Although Aurukun is meant to be alcohol-free, drink is sometimes smuggled in and its use affects school attendance.
- Many of the children and young people who roam the streets at night are not attending school.
Although there may be some plausible ways in which Direct Instruction may be linked to the issues at Aurukun, it is clear that this is a community facing some profound problems. It seems likely that a number of factors are at play and that the influence of the school curriculum is relatively minor. Given this context, I have to say that I find it unedifying to see the events at Aurukun used to attack Direct Instruction.