A Call for Direct Instruction

by Robert Pondiscio
January 16th, 2009

A solution for the achievement gap was discovered four decades ago, writes John McWhorter in The New Republic, and it has nothing to do with raising low expectations, improving parental involvement, or demanding accountability.  Starting in the late 1960s, he writes, Project Follow Through compared nine teaching methods and tracked their results in more than 75,000 children from kindergarten through third grade:

It found that the Direct Instruction (DI) method of teaching reading was vastly more effective than any of the others for (drum roll, please) poor kids, including black ones. DI isn’t exactly complicated: Students are taught to sound out words rather than told to get the hang of recognizing words whole, and they are taught according to scripted drills that emphasize repetition and frequent student participation.

Subsequent studies found similar results, says McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Indeed, he notes, ”a search for an occasion where DI was instituted and failed to improve students’ reading performance would be distinctly frustrating.”  So why no discussion of Direct Instruction as a means of addressing the achievement gap?

Schools of education have long been caught up in an idea that teaching poor kids to read requires something more than, well, teaching them how to sound out words. The poor child, the good-thinking wisdom tells us, needs tutti-frutti approaches bringing in music, rhythm, narrative, Ebonics, and so on. Distracted by the hardships in their home lives, surely they cannot be reached by just laying out the facts. That can only work for coddled children of doctors and lawyers. But the simple fact of how well DI has worked shows that “creativity” is not what poor kids need.

Matthew Yglesias describes McWhorter’s piece as “somewhat overblown but essentially correct” and nails an even larger issue:

It’s both strange and unfortunate that the education system is so unresponsive to this research and also strange and unfortunate that “education reform” efforts have so much focus on administrative structure of school systems and so little on these kinds of curriculum issues.”

McWhorter meanwhile urges Arne Duncan, the next Ed Secretary to consider “taking the blinders off and forcing America’s urban school districts to teach poor kids to read with tools that we have known to work since the Nixon Administration.”