A question for teachers: Which is better: classical music or jazz?

There are clear differences between the two forms, of course. In one, the performer is expected to produce as accurately as possible what the composer had in mind; in the other, the composer's work is only the framework for the player's improvisation. The jazz performer essentially composes as he plays -- and composes differently every time he plays.

But which is better?

It's a silly question, of course, and I ask it of teachers only to make a point about two contrasting approaches for teaching the basics to children who have not done well in school.

It has been established for decades that programmed instruction -- those heavily scripted approaches that, like a classical composer's score, tell the teacher precisely what to do and when and how to do it -- work very well, particularly with elementary school youngsters.

I recall a study done by an education professor at Indiana University more than 20 years ago that reached the unsettling conclusion that the teaching programs that gave teachers the most flexibility produced the least success. The most effective of the programs came with precise, almost computer-like instructions: If the student's response is A, go to Question 2; if it is B, go to Question 3. Not so much as a composer's ad. lib.

The trouble, he said, was that teachers want to be creative -- to draw, like jazz performers, on their own experience and knowledge and whim. Isn't that, they ask, the very essence of teaching? Aren't they trained to be handy with the analogy, alert to the "teachable moment," aware of each child's peculiar learning style?

They might not say so in so many words, but many teachers assume that jazz is better than classical.

And for some musicians -- and some teachers -- it is. There are teachers, including some of the very best ones, who should never be hogtied with a script. They are artists who know how to teach, how to entice children into learning, how to make ostensibly dull subject matter come alive. And their results bear them out.

Some others are more artisans than artists, capable of performing well but not particularly good in the improvisational mode. These are the teachers whose results are most likely to be enhanced through Direct Instruction, Reading Mastery, Success for All and other highly scripted programs.

And if that were all there was to it, there wouldn't be much controversy. After all, both jazz artists and classical performers can lead highly satisfying -- and creative -- careers.

But there is nothing in the teaching programs that compares with, say, a violinist's mastery of the nuances of his instrument or familiarity with its literature and techniques. And that's where the classical/jazz analogy breaks down. The accomplished creative teacher can be inspired and inspiring, celebrated by peers and remembered by grateful pupils. The "program" teacher becomes adept at doing what the program dictates, with little difference between the master practitioner and the bright teaching aide.

Two Houston educators illustrate the gulf between the two approaches. Thaddeus Lott achieved a national reputation when, as principal of the Mabel B. Wesley Elementary School, he brought his mostly low-income students from near the bottom in reading and math to 12th among his district's 182 elementary schools. He did it, he says, with Distar, a highly scripted direct-instruction program.

But listen to Linda M. McNeil, co-director of the Rice University Center for Education, also in Houston, in an interview with The Post's Jay Mathews: An approach like direct instruction, she said, "really dishonors the professional craft of the teacher. Educators do not find in this program, or any other package, the depth and breadth and the variety of reading styles that they need to get all their kids to read and to find reading purposeful and fun."

The teachers McNeil has in mind are, in all likelihood, enjoying sufficient success in their classrooms that they needn't worry about some newfangled (and fairly expensive) program supplanting their improvisational jazz.

It's those teachers whose students are failing, or just getting by, who need help. If programmed instruction stifles their ineffectual "creativity" but enhances their children's academic success, is that such awful music?