With the first day of spring drawing near, Craig Goldman says there are signs all around that his school district has been re-energized. And though it is possible that the unseasonably warm weather is helping his mood, the Mountain View Whisman School District's superintendent says his jubilation is due to the success of a new district-wide teaching system called Explicit Direct Instruction.
"We did not have this a year ago," Goldman whispers on March 8 from the back of Brook Broadway-Stiff's math class at Crittenden Middle School. He is referring to the level of attention apparent in all of the students, even in this far-flung corner of the classroom.
Since the EDI program was introduced at the beginning of this school year, Goldman says that teachers all over the district have reported a significant increase in student engagement and interest in lessons.
How it works
The improvement, he says, is due to the highly systematic approach of Explicit Direct Instruction -- a program the district was able to initiate thanks to a $1 million grant from Google.
The district used that money to hire DataWorks, an education company based in Fowler, Calif., which came in over the summer to teach the EDI program to a group of teachers, who then passed on their knowledge to other teachers throughout the district, until all had at least a working understanding of the system.
Each EDI lesson begins with an explanation of the skill that will be taught; teachers are required to call on all of their students at random (not just upon those who raise their hands); white boards are often used, which allow teachers to better manage their time by quickly determining who understands the lesson at hand and who needs extra help.
All of these components may seem like common sense -- and they are, to a degree. However, according to Karen Robinson, principal of Crittenden, the EDI program does a great job of merging the techniques in a very "cohesive way" that is easily replicated.
Teachers come from a variety of backgrounds and schools of education, Robinson says. Therefore, there are often many different ideas of what the ideal lesson plan looks like -- even among those teaching the same subject at the same school.
"I think EDI gives us a precision tool to instruct," she says. "It gives us a common language."
With an increased emphasis on "mainstreaming" -- moving children from special needs classes and into regular classrooms -- and with English learners accounting for 40 percent of the Mountain View Whisman School District's student population, that common language is proving to be especially helpful, according to Jeannie Son-Bell, a fourth-grade teacher at Monta Loma Elementary School.
"I think it makes it equitable for a diverse population," Son-Bell says of the EDI program. "It's a very good way to keep the kids engaged in math concepts that, in some cases, are really quite challenging."
Son-Bell says the kids appreciate the emphasis on learning why they are studying the concepts, as well as the opportunity to work in pairs (another basic tenet of the EDI system).
Robinson says she has noticed that the kids like that everyone is held accountable through being randomly called on in class.
Students in middle school know how to tune out while looking as if they are tuned in, Robinson says. However, even those students tend to appreciate being forced into engaging, she says.
"It really ups the level of accountability," Robinson says. "The students like that everyone is accountable."
As a teacher, Son-Bell likes choosing non-volunteers -- which keeps all of her students on their toes and paying attention -- as well as the requirement that her kids answer in complete sentences.
"That's really important," Son-Bell says of the full-sentence mandate. "You are teaching them to speak properly, and you are getting a sense of how they arrived at their answer. And when kids say things out loud they learn it more effectively."
She is also a fan of using individual white boards. As she teaches her students about fractions on March 8, she asks them to show her their answers on their white boards. The children furiously scribble numbers with erasable markers and hold up their responses.
"You can tell immediately how much of your room has that concept and how many don't," she explains. Sometimes she will call on a student with the right answer, asking him or her to explain how the problem is solved. Other times she will call on someone who got it wrong, in an attempt to discover where he or she took a wrong turn.
It is immediate feedback, Son-Bell says. Where before she would simply talk at her students for 40 minutes, with the white boards she can instantly check on her class's understanding and adjust her lesson accordingly.
When asked whether there has been any pushback from teachers, both Goldman and Robinson say they haven't noticed much.
Although it is a highly structured system, "you don't have to be robotic," Robinson says. "You can put your own personality into this and everything, and it doesn't take the place of a lab, a special project or a simulation."
Although no hard data yet exists to prove that EDI has worked, both Goldman and Robinson expect they will soon have the numbers they need to validate their investment in the DataWorks program.
The district will soon begin administering the California Standards Tests to students at the end of April, and Robinson said she is confident that she will see an improvement over last year's scores.