What the Data Really Show:
Direct Instruction Really Works!
The dirty little secret from
the biggest education study ever
Education in many schools is simply failing. While many mainstream leaders in public education demand more funding for their failed programs, their explanations for their failure to teach our children rings hollow. More government programs, more social engineering, more welfare, licensing of parents, more self-esteem therapy, more computers - all these "solutions" put the blame on families and society and funding for the failure of public education. These excuses are exposed by the sterling success of those few schools where a different approach is taken. "If the child hasn't learned, the teacher hasn't taught." That's the philosophy behind Direct Instruction, an educational technique that challenges the mantras of modern bureaucrats and shows that even the most disadvantaged children can excel, if only schools will teach them. And the evidence for the success of Direct Instruction is much more than anecdotal: major long-term studies provide powerful evidence of its success, and disturbing evidence for the futility of the more popular techniques that dominate our schools.
The term "Direct Instruction" refers to a rigorously developed, highly scripted method for teaching that is fast-paced and provides constant interaction between students and the teacher. Two of my children have experienced it and loved it at Appleton's Classical School (a charter school - and public school - in Wisconsin that my wife founded, working with many other parents and a great school board). They were able to participate far more than before and learned more than ever before. It was introduced in 1968, based on the work of Siegfried Engelmann, currently a professor at the University of Oregon and Director of the Association for Direct Instruction.
Dr. Engelmann used it to help inner-city children learn and excel, but it has proven successful for children regardless of economic level. Many studies paint the same story: Direct Instruction works, providing rapid gains, gains that persist, gains that increase self-esteem because children have real skills they can be proud of.
Direct Instruction is the dirty little secret of the educational establishment. This method, rich in structure and drilling and content, is the opposite of the favored methods of today's high-paid education gurus, and contradicts the popular theories that are taught to new teachers in our universities. Direct Instruction should be no secret at all, for it has been proven in the largest educational study ever (discussed below) and continues to bring remarkable success at low cost when it is implemented.
A recent example from Wisconsin is Siefert Elementary in the Milwaukee Public School system. Four years ago, it was one of the worst schools in that troubled school system. Principal Sarah Martin-Elam, anxious to do whatever it took to help kids learn, called the faculty together and began a search for something that would work. They explored Direct Instruction and saw the potential for success. That potential is being realized. As Alan J. Borsuk reports in his article, "Learning the Drill: Siefert Elementary Studies Success with Structured Lessons" in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 1, 2001, the "percentage of Siefert fourth-graders who scored proficient or better in reading on the state's standardized tests rose from 22% in 1997-'98 to 57% in 1999-2000. In math, the proficient or better score rose from 11% to 48% over the same period. In social studies, the increase was from 13% to 61%." Those are amazing gains. And more gains can be expected as this school seeks to become a charter school under Wisconsin State law, in order to have more control over their curriculum and methods.
So what's this about the largest educational study ever providing proof for the success of Direct Instruction?
Project Follow Through:
The Biggest Educational Study Ever
One large study that parents really should know about is Project Follow Through, completed in the 1970s. This was the largest educational study ever done, costing over $600 million, and covering 79,000 children in 180 communities. This project examined a variety of programs and educational philosophies to learn how to improve education of disadvantaged children in grades K-3. (It was launched in response to the observation that Head Start children were losing the advantages from Head Start by third grade.) Desired positive outcomes included basic skills, cognitive skills ("higher order thinking") and affective gains (self-esteem). Multiple programs were implemented over a 5-year period and the results were analyzed by the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) and Abt Associates (Cambridge, MA). The various programs studied could be grouped into the three classes described above (Basic Skills, Cognitive-Conceptual, Affective-Cognitive).
The program that gave the best results in general was true Direct Instruction, a subset of Basic Skills. The other program types, which closely resemble today's educational strategies (having labels like "holistic," "student-centered learning," "learning-to-learn," "active learning," "cooperative education," and "whole language") were inferior. Students receiving Direct Instruction did better than those in all other programs when tested in reading, arithmetic, spelling, and language. But what about "higher-order thinking" and self-esteem? Contrary to common assumptions, Direct Instruction improved cognitive skills dramatically relative to the control groups and also showed the highest improvement in self-esteem scores compared to control groups. Students in the Open Education Center program, where self-esteem was the primary goal, scored LOWER than control groups in that area! As Dr. Jeffrey R. Jones puts it,
"The inescapable conclusion of Project Follow Through is that kids enrolled in educational programs, which have well-defined academic objectives, will enjoy greater achievement in basic skills, thinking skills, and self-esteem. Self-esteem in fact appears to derive from pride in becoming competent in the important academic skills."
(Educational Philosophies: A Primer for Parents, Milwaukee: PRESS (Parents Raising Educational Standards in Schools), 1995. You can order this excellent booklet from PRESS at P.O. Box 26913, Milwaukee, WI 53226 (phone: 262-241-0514) for $7.)
Jones explains that many educators find their ideologies undercut by the hard data. Rather than change, many simply ignored the study and continued as before. (A more recent example of this is the continued use of whole language reading education in schools, in spite of overwhelming evidence of failure). Today, we find schools spending more and more to implement forms of "affective" and "cognitive" educational programs, while continuing to turn away from anything close to Direct Instruction. This has not resulted in improved basic skills, improved thinking, or improved self-esteem.
In Dr. Jones's thoroughly documented booklet on the effects and consequences of many modern educational practices, I especially recommend his essay, "Choosing Effective Instructional Programs." It reviews past studies on the effectiveness of different teaching strategies, including Direct Instruction. Jones also discusses research on the long-term effects of those who received Direct Instruction in Project Follow Through and in a separate study conducted by Gersten and Keating. Kids receiving true Direct Instruction were much more likely to graduate from high school and to be accepted into college and to show long-term gains in reading, language, and math scores.
Another valuable resource about Direct Instruction is the video "Failing Grades" which features researchers (not movie stars) who discuss the results of scientific studies comparing the performance of American and Canadian school children with those of other countries. The U.S. Project Follow Through study (see below) is discussed in detail, as well as the limitations of "student-centered" learning (e.g., the teacher as facilitator or "guide on the side") which focuses primarily on self-esteem and "discovery learning." This 76-minute videotape is easy to understand, is thorough, and comes with a printed bibliography. It can be ordered for $17.95 (US) from the Society for Advancing Educational Research, c/o VICOM Limited, 11603-165 Street, Edmonton, Alberta, CANADA T5M 3Z1.
G.P. O'Neill in Canadian Journal of Education, Vol. 8: 162-185 (1988), reviewed 150 past studies and concluded that Direct Instruction is correlated with improved learning among primary children from working and middle class backgrounds - a conclusion supported by almost every relevant study on the topic. Likewise, a 1987 U.S. Dept. of Education booklet, What Works: Research about Teaching and Learning, concludes that Direct Instruction enables students to learn more, especially in conjunction with well-designed homework assignments.
Among the multiple references Jones provides for Project Follow Through, I'll list three:
- Stebbins, L.B., R.G. St. Pierre, E.C. Proper, R.B. Anderson, and T.R. Cerva. Education as Experimentation: A Planned Variation Model, Volume IV-A, An Evaluation of Follow Through. Abt Associates, Cambridge, MA, 1977.
- Bock, G., L.B. Stebbins, and E.C. Proper. Education as Experimentation: A Planned Variation Model, Volume IV-B, Effects of Follow Through Models, Abt Associates, Cambridge, MA, 1977. [Also issued by U.S. Office of Education as National Evaluation: Detailed Effects Volume II-B of the Follow Through Planned Variation Experiment Series.]
- Meyer, L.A. Long-term academic effects of the Direct Instruction project follow through. Elementary School Journal. 84: 380-304 (1984).
The following sources have been recommended as studies showing the long-term benefits of Direct Instruction on a child:
- Gersten, R., & Keating, T (1987). Long-Term Benefits from Direct Instruction. Educational Leadership, 44(6), 28-29.
- Gersten, R., Keating, T., & Becker, W. (1988). The Continued Impact of the Direct Instruction Model: Longitudinal Studies of Follow Through Students. Education and Treatment of Children, 11(4), 318-327.
- Gary Adams, Project Follow Through and Beyond, in Effective School Practices, Volume 15, No. 1, Winter, 1995-6 Theme: What Was That Project Follow Through? This is also available at http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~adiep/ft/151toc.htm.
- Research on Direct Instruction by Gary Adams and Siegfried Engelmann. Available for $24.95 + $4 shipping and handling through Educational Achievement Systems, 319 Nickerson St. - Suite 112, Seattle, WA 98109. (Did you know that the average percentile score of students in DI reading is .72 percentile and .87 in DI math? Not bad!)
Direct Instruction and Wesley Elementary in Houston
The idea of simply educating kids seems to have taken a backseat to most educational experts and administrators. They miss the point that kids with real academic skills, especially skills in reading, writing, and mathematics, are more likely to overcome social barriers, more likely to have genuine self esteem, and most likely to be genuinely prepared for the challenges of life and the workplace. By emphasizing so many things besides a genuine, classical education, the educational establishment tends to sell our kids short and perpetuate many of the problems they claim to be solving.
Consider the case of Wesley Elementary School in Houston. According to Richard Nadler in the article, "Failing Grade" (National Review, June 1, 1998, pp. 38-39), Wesley has all the demographic markers of a school bound for failure. Over 80% of the students qualify for subsidized lunches, and nearly all are minorities (92% black, 7% Hispanic). Yet it ranks among the best schools of Houston, with first-graders placing at the 82nd percentile level in reading tests (50 points higher than the expected level for similar at-risk schools). What has made Wesley so successful? The answer is classical education in the form of Direct Instruction curriculum designed by Siegfried Engelmann, an example of the much ridiculed "sage-on-the-stage" approach. This Direct Instruction system boosts reading, writing, and math scores by 30 to 40 percentile points in at-risk schools. Sadly, Engelmann, like others who successfully defy popular fads in educational reform, has been rejected by much of the educational establishment. His success is an embarrassment to them.
Direction Instruction has been developed and refined for decades, particularly at the University of Oregon. It offers detailed packages and training materials suitable for almost any teacher. It is not for elite kids with healthy families, but was "shaped to succeed in the educational killing fields of urban America." Yet it has been proven successful with students of virtually any background. And it is focused on a classical education, giving real competence in reading, writing, and math to enable kids to soar in their educational future. "The package, implemented systematically in grades K-3, proved so potent that even when it was abandoned after the third grade it still had measurable, statistically significant effects on high-school graduation and college acceptance - an advantage of at least 10 percentiles."
Engelmann's slogan is, "If the student hasn't learned, the teacher hasn't taught." American's educational colleges, however, have adopted the philosophy of Jean Piaget of Switzerland. It was in Switzerland where I first encountered his name. As a Swiss educator described his work to me in warm, glowing terms back in 1980, I remember feeling most uneasy about the entire premise of Piaget's approach, which seemed more suited for a naive communal experiment than for real education. Piaget taught that children go through cognitive stages that are largely independent of instruction from the teacher. They just need to be nurtured through their own stages of self-discovery instead of being taught according to any particular schedule. The watered-down, "developmentally appropriate" approach of so many educational theorists seems rooted in Piaget's speculations. Engelmann's consistent and persistent success shatters such notions - and thus Engelmann is shunned. The NEA, the Dept. of Education, and the teacher colleges of the nation should be flocking to Engelmann to learn how to provide solid education that can enrich a child for a lifetime. Instead, we continue to hear more about self-esteem, "learning to learn," cooperative education, diversity, recycling, peer mediation, conflict resolution, and so forth, with such dismal results that President Clinton is calling for a hundred thousand volunteers to go into third-grade to try to help provide reading skills. But we don't need an army of volunteers in third-grade. We need genuine education in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade so that third-graders will already be reading at levels far beyond anything we've seen in the past several decades.
The hard data show that Direct Instruction excels in educating children for life, giving them skills they need, along with self-esteem and positive feelings about school. Sadly, when hard data are hard on the pet theories of many educational experts, their response is not to abandon their theory, but to abandon the data. The silence about Project Follow Through and related studies is pervasive. And then the "experts" wonder why so many parents are trying to abandon mainstream public schools, either through calling for educational choice (vouchers and so forth), charter schools, or private schools for the few who can afford it (including many public school teachers).
Direct Instruction and related methods that focus on basic skills demand more attention. It is possible for children to learn much more than the "child-centered" and "developmentally appropriate" experts would have us believe.
Many schools have experienced the power of Direct Instruction since Project Followthrough. For example. in my state of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute released a report on the success of Direct Instruction (PDF), which is also summarized at Education-consumers.org. The article is "Direct Instruction and the Teaching of Early Reading" by Mark Schug, Sara Tarver and Richard Western in the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute Report, Vol. 14, No. 2, March 2001. James H. Miller, President of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, writes that "this study draws two conclusions. One, it is much more effective for children, especially poor children, to be taught with the approach called Direct Instruction. Secondly, it is much more efficient for Wisconsin taxpayers to have their money spent on reading programs that work, rather than wasting millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, annually on trendy school of education programs that have failed in the past, are failing in the present, and will fail in the future." And he's right!
Links and Resources
National Institute for Direct Instruction - the primary organization for those interested in Direct Instruction.
The Myths & Facts About Direct Instruction by Shaun Killian (new resource, added 2014)
Bereiter and Kurland's Re-analysis of Follow Through Data - from a 1981 article that responds to the attempt of Ernest House and the Ford Foundation to sweep aside the mountain of data from Project Follow Through.
Response to "The High/Scope Preschool Curriculum Comparison Study Through Age 23" by Siegfried Engelmann, Director, National Institute for Direct Instruction. He responds to a study that inappropriately claims that Direct Instruction students have a higher arrest rate. It's a ridiculous study based on a sample size of 68 students, only 23 of which were in Direct Instruction. What conclusions can possibly be drawn from such a tiny sample?
Learning the Drill: Siefert Elementary Studies Success with Structured Lessons - a success story about Direct Instruction from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 1, 2001.
Wisconsin Policy Research Institute - a non-profit institute established to study public-policy issues affecting the state of Wisconsin. Their publications are excellent, well documented, and worth reading if you want to be informed about the facts of political life and education in Wisconsin. One recent publication of theirs that I highly recommend is Direct Instruction and the Teaching of Early Reading by Mark Schug, Sara Tarver and Richard Western. It's available as a PDF file. (The study is mentioned in a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article of March 21, 2001, "Study Backs Rigid Reading Program." Can't leave the political nuances out, can they? They could have used many other adjectives besides "rigid.")
Washington Times article, March 24, 1998, on Project Follow Through - discusses the attempt of House et al. to downplay the impressive results of that study.
"The Ups and Downs of School Reform: A Case Study of Success and Its Demise" by Jean Stockard and Donna Dwiggins, University of Oregon and National Institute for Direct Instruction.
Teach-Nology.com: The Direct Instruction Area - resources for Direct Instruction at the popular Teach-Nology.com Website.
The Classical Charter School of Appleton - lots of good links from a successful charter school using Direct Instruction, a school that my wife worked to establish.
The Research Base for Reading Mastery, SRA by Bonnie Grossen
National Council on Teacher Quality - common sense approaches for elevating the quality of teaching.
"An A-Maze-ing Approach To Math: A Mathematician with a Child Learns Some Politics" in EducationNext, Spring 2005: Barry Garelick, a mathematician, takes on the failure of the NCTM and the complicity of the federal government in supporting failed educational theories that hinder mathematics learning. See also "Discovery learning in math: Exercises versus problems."