Siegfried Engelmann, a Life Well-Lived
By Linda Diamond, founder and former president of CORE
A shining light of education left us on February 15, 2019. Siegfried Engelmann, known as Zig to those of us who knew and adored him, was a genius. His expertise was figuring out and “engineering” instruction so that children learned to read and do math successfully and at advanced levels starting in kindergarten. Despite its critics, Zig and Direct Instruction (DI) did more for at-risk students than any other method of instruction.
As a new young, high school English teacher in 1973, I knew nothing about teaching reading, but my first teaching experience included 22 young men, ages 15-17, who struggled to read. As a result, I began a journey to learn what I should have learned in my teacher training program. My journey took me to Oregon and to Zig. He taught me how to teach reading and when I brought Distar back to my high school students, I taught them how to read. Every year I made the trek to Oregon to learn more from Zig. And I am undyingly grateful for having that opportunity. My own daughter learned to read at age 4 when I used his book, Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.
Zig knew the DI method worked and he had the evidence to prove its effectiveness. Project Follow Through was a large-scale study conducted from 1968 to 1977. This study involved more than 40 schools, including Native American sites, schools with large African American and Hispanic populations, urban and rural settings, and overall poor and disadvantaged school populations. At the end of the study, only DI was successful with all students. But the study organizers never were willing to disseminate the findings because there was only one winning model—Direct Instruction. The government wanted multiple winners. Thus, the bureaucratic nature of the education system impeded the spread of DI, and philosophy won over results.
Despite the setback, Zig never gave up. He knew that what he was doing was right and that it was a matter of equity. As a result of Zig and his collaborators, including Wes Becker, Doug Carnine and many others, hundreds of thousands of students benefitted from DI. Zig’s life work took him to urban and remote districts as well as to work with the Aboriginal population of Australia. Zig engineered his programs to get results and the results were amazing. Zig held the unwavering belief that all children, especially those from challenging circumstances, could excel and if they didn’t learn it was not their fault, but the fault of the instruction they received.
Sadly, genius is not always recognized when someone is alive. Perhaps in the future Zig will be recognized as the visionary educator he was, as someone who didn’t just talk about equity, but who actually made equity a reality for children of color and children in impoverished circumstances. One of Zig’s most memorable quotes says it all:
“We’re not going to fail you. We’re not going to discriminate against you, or give up on you, regardless of how unready you may be according to traditional standards. We are not going to label you with a handle, such as dyslexic or brain-damaged, and feel that we have now exonerated ourselves from the responsibility of teaching you. We’re not going to punish you by requiring you to do things you can’t do. We’re not going to talk about your difficulties to learn. Rather, we will take you where you are, and we’ll teach you. And the extent to which you fail is our failure, not yours. We will not cop out by saying, ‘He can’t learn.’ Rather, we will say, ‘I failed to teach him. So I better take a good look at what I did and try to figure out a better way.’
From: Engelmann, S. (2007). Teaching needy kids in our backward system: 42 years of trying. Eugene, OR: ADI Press.
Zig, we will miss your brilliance, your humor, your tenacity, and your honesty. To see Zig in action and hear much of the story of his work, take a moment to watch this video. It’s 20 minutes but well worth the time. You can also learn more about Zig on his website.