Warm and fuzzy makes Johnny dim (National Post, February 16, 2005)

A sensational news item out of Toronto this month reports a "rising tide of parental rage." Parents are swearing at teachers in front of children, mouthing off at the school secretary or even launching (unspecified) physical assaults over marks and discipline issues. "A generation ago," says Sharon O'Halloran of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, "teachers and other authority figures were held in high regard. Now the pendulum has shifted."

Setting aside O'Halloran's failed metaphor -- pendulums don't shift, they swing -- her indignation leaves me curiously unmoved. Of course, one never condones uncivil or violent behaviour against pubic servants. And yet somewhere inside me a little imp is smiling. The little imp remembers that after 9/11, the Toronto branch of Ontario's biggest secondary school teachers union joined the anti-American "root causes" chorus, disseminating an article entitled Why America is Hated, and encouraging teachers to use it in the classroom. Although I normally abhor blame-the-victim games, since today's scapegoats represent that arrogant juggernaut, the public education empire, I'll make an exception.

What are the root causes of parents' anger? Perhaps they feel their kids are getting a second-rate education, and they're powerless to challenge the system. Or more specifically, perhaps it's because they have kids in Grade 3 who feel dumb because they can't read, spell or do simple math, with nobody in the educational hierarchy taking responsibility for their failure.

I recently corresponded at length with a Vancouver mother, "Alice," who e-mailed me after reading a column I'd written about political correctness in universities. Alice's experience convinced her that the public school system is about union interests first, and teaching children last. Her son "Brian" is dyslexic. He was failing to learn to read through his school's "whole language" approach, whereby a child follows his "feelings" about what a word or story signifies, rather than its plain meaning.

Through her own research, Alice fell upon a program that worked in home trials, a variant of "Direct Instruction"(DI), which is a rigorous, old-fashioned methodology based on phoneme recognition, structure, memorization and drills. The school district finally agreed to provide a teaching aide for Brian, but hired one with seniority -- union rules -- and no expertise in dyslexia or DI. This compromised his entire year, Alice reports. Brian never learned to read well, and dropped out of high school.

Direct Instruction has been called the dirty little secret of the educational establishment. Its superiority as a teaching tool, for all students, not just those with special needs, is chronicled in the largest educational study ever done in the world. Project Follow Through ran under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Education from 1967 to 1995, and covered 79,000 children in 180 communities. Its results unequivocally demonstrate that compared to modish program types like "student-centered learning," "learning to learn," "guided reading" and "balanced literacy," students under DI fared better in mastering the three Rs. DI even improved "higher order thinking" and "self-esteem" -- exactly the warm and fuzzy outcomes Canada's Whole Language approach aims to boost.


So why the stubborn resistance to this inexpensive, easily-implemented and highly standardized model?

The problem starts with the teachers colleges. Vancouver mother Karin Litzcke, an MBA and freelance journalist on the public education beat, is writing a book on public education and democracy. According to her research, DI isn't taught, even as an alternate methodology, in a single Canadian education faculty.

DI gets results quickly, even with learning-challenged students like Brian. It has also proven effective with large classes -- and thus fewer teachers -- which might explain why the union-dominated teaching industry views it with skepticism.

Like Alice, Litzcke complains that the education system stifles citizen input: Parents who oppose the status quo are stonewalled or marginalized as troublemakers. Out of frustration, some 15 parents, including Alice, have tried to sue educators for malpractice, so far without success. Unlike their counterparts in law and medicine, teachers aren't held to any legally binding professional benchmarks -- except the ones the unions negotiate with provinces.

If your child can't read, spell or do math, Google "Project Follow Through" and read a story that will enrage you. But don't swear at the teachers. They're only failing to teach what they themselves weren't taught.

© National Post 2005