Precision Teaching Case Study Series Part 5 of 5: So Why Don’t Schools Use Precision Teaching???

This is the fifth of a series of 5 blogs on teaching reading skills to a developmentally delayed adolescent:

  1. Teaching Sounds and Sound Combinations to a Developmentally Delayed Adolescent
  2. Teaching Word Lists to a Developmentally Delayed Adolescent
  3. Teaching Story Reading to a Developmentally Delayed Adolescent
  4. Teaching Word Meanings to a Developmentally Delayed Adolescent
  5. So Why Don’t Schools Use Precision Teaching???

This Is Not Brain Surgery

The data described in the past 4 blogs regarding teaching a student at risk how to become a fluent reader, is by no means out of the ordinary. The Sacajewea Project, which involved thousands of students from some 20 U.S. states doing simple one-minute timings in reading and math, is conclusive proof of that. On average, those thousands of children doubled their performances in reading passages and doing math facts during the course of a single school year. Most other U.S. students did not.

This Is Not Some New Fad From California

It’s not a case of it being so new that nobody has had a chance to use it. The first work was done in the early seventies and has continued to be done by a small, dedicated group of practitioners ever since. Literally millions of children have been involved during the past 45 years.

“Dr Dot” as Special Ed Director, Will Burrow, is known has introduced it into the entire special education community at the Sabbatus School District in Maine. The result has been a consistent return of at-risk children to the mainstream classes of the district.

This Is Not Rocket Science, Kids Do It

It’s not like it is difficult to do. Measuring a specific skill, for a minute or 30 seconds, is a piece of cake. To lighten the load on his teachers, charter school founder, Baker Mitchell at Country Day Charter School outside of Leland, North Carolina, had his teachers form their students into triads. Each triad consisted of one competent student, one middle of the road student, and one at-risk student. The top student could monitor the other two. The middle student could monitor the top student. The at-risk student could not evaluate the performance of the top or middle student, so s/he became the timer who ran the timings and was assisted by his peers. The students would work on whatever measures the teacher had determined each day for a designated period of time. The top student would handle all of the files for his or her triad, making sure that everything was prepared in advance and put away at the end of the time. S/he would also determine if the dots on any of the student’s charts had failed to accelerate and would bring only those charts to the teacher. As a result, the teacher only saw a few charts each day of students who needed a change in their program. In time, the students learned and implemented some of the more common adjustments without involving the teacher.

This Is About Ignorance

Our teachers are not taught anything about daily measurement, frequency as a measure of human behavior, Precision Teaching and/or the use of the Standard Celeration Chart. If you don’t believe me check out the Tests and Measurement courses at any major teacher training centre. With the possible exceptions of the University of Pennsylvania, University of Nevada at Reno and North Texas State University in Denton, Texas, you will come up empty. Apologies to anyone I have missed.

There are a number of places where you can learn about Precision Teaching, probably the best being Morningside Academy in Seattle, Washington. Kent Johnson and his staff hold summer training sessions for teachers, parents and anyone who cares to learn some critical skills about measuring human activity.

If we do not teach these skills to our teachers, we cannot hold them responsible for not knowing them and not using them. They don’t know what they don’t know.The same is true for autism therapists, speech and language therapists and anyone else who works with school children, especially those at-risk.

This Is About Pain

People hate change almost as much as they hate real accountability. Precision Teaching offers both types of pain because the data forces you to change if your current strategy is failing. A set of dots going in a straight line across a chart signals “cerebral death” just like a flat lined heart monitor indicates cardiac death. But changing what you are comfortable with, even if it is failing, is difficult to impossible for most people. It’s easier to let the patient silently slip away. Maybe that’s why a high school student drops out of school every 26 seconds. Maybe that’s why 25% of North Americans are functionally illiterate. Maybe that’s why 3,000,000 jobs are unable to be filled in the middle of a recession. The pain spreads far, wide and deep.

Will Burrow has had a constant struggle to attract and keep special education teachers charting and making decisions based on the data. When the majority of the culture does not support your efforts, it is a long, hard slog to build and maintain your momentum. Kudos to the few who do so.

It took the medical profession 100 years to learn to wash their hands after they were completely aware that it reduced transferring infections and killing patients. The culture at the time indicated that the more blood on your smock, the better a surgeon you were. We have fifty years in on teaching people how to measure effectively. Only 50 more to go until this becomes common practice.

There Are No Consequences For Not Learning And Not Using Better Tools

There are no consequences for failing to adopt and adapt. It is always easy to blame the situation, blame the system, blame the child or his or her family and then throw up your hands in resignation. You will still get more kids, more paychecks, another year of seniority, holidays and whatever else comes with the job. But you will also get to watch perfectly normal children become illiterate and at risk right in front of your eyes while you chose not to even check the degree of damage.

Maybe it’s time we took the road less traveled.


  1. Powerful and well-documented, Michael. A real call to educational arms!

    You bring up ‘culture’, and I think that’s key. Real training on statistical data was pretty much absent from my experience of teacher’s college. If anything, the qualitative/anecdotal was stressed over the quantitative.

    The education system, in general, seems to trust watered down versions of precision teaching – scores on math fact quizzes or the occasional reading check-in. Do we need more scientists-that-are-good-teachers, hungry for daily data and measures? And how can we motivate more of these types of people to go into education?

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