Meta-Analysis Confirms Effectiveness of an Old School Approach: Direct Instruction

Did you hear the one about a curriculum with fifty years of research that actually demonstrates its effectiveness? There’s a new meta-analysis in the peer-reviewed journal the Review of Educational Research that looks at over five hundred articles, dissertations, and research studies and documents a half-century of “strong positive results” for a curriculum regardless of school, setting, grade, student poverty status, race, and ethnicity, and across subjects and grades.

Ready for the punchline? That curriculum is called “Direct Instruction.

Hey, wait. Where’s everybody going? I’m telling you, Direct Instruction is the Rodney Dangerfield of education. It gets no respect.

I know what you’re thinking. “Direct Instruction? DISTAR, Corrective Reading and Reading Mastery? Basal programs? Scripted curriculum? That stuff’s been around since the Earth cooled. It’s not just old school, it’s the oldest school. Who cares about ‘DI’ when there’s so much cool, cutting edge, and disruptive stuff going on education? This is the age of ed tech, personalized learning, and competency-based progressions. The future is here and it’s OER, social media integration, virtual reality, and makerspaces. Direct instruction!? You gotta be kidding me. See you at SXSW EDU!”

Hold on and look again. The central assumption of DI is that every child can learn and any teacher can succeed with an effective curriculum and solid instructional delivery techniques. When a student does not learn, it doesn’t mean something is wrong with the student, DI disciples insist. It means something is wrong with the instruction. “Thus, the theory underlying DI lies in opposition to developmental approaches, constructivism, and theories of learning styles,” write Jean Stockard and Timothy W. Wood of the University of Oregon, lead authors of the new meta-analysis, “which assume that students’ ability to learn depends on their developmental stage, their ability to construct or derive understandings, or their own unique approach to learning,”

Ah…there’s your trouble, DI devotees.

Wait. There’s more. Direct Instruction is mastery-based and systematic. “If you fail to bring students to mastery in lessons 1-60, they’re going to be in trouble on lesson 70,” says education professor Marcy Stein of the University of Washington Tacoma. That precision and pacing—the instructional design work—is what hardcore fans love and even fetishize about DI. But those enthusiasts are outliers in education, for Direct Instruction, however effective, goes against the grain of generations of teachers trained and flattered into the certain belief that they alone know what’s best for their students. The curriculum will never be written—holds the conventional wisdom—that can override a teacher’s judgment about what every child needs. Fifty years of research? As another comedian, Richard Pryor, might have asked, “Who you gonna believe? Me? Or your lying meta-analysis?”

For a significant subset of teachers (actually a very large subset), the mere thought of a set curriculum imposes an intolerable burden on their autonomy and creativity. Yes, DI lessons are scripted, specifying “the exact wording and the examples the teacher is to present for each exercise in the program, which ensures that the program will communicate one and only one possible interpretation of the skill being taught,” according to the National Institute for Direct Instruction (NIFDI), an advocacy organization based in Oregon. This, as much as anything, probably explains how DI can be both highly effective and the perpetual wallflower at the curriculum dance hall.

Direct Instruction advocates are “not naïve enough to think that to be successful all teachers need to do is read the DI script,” Stein insists. It’s not “teacher-proof” as many critics state. Proper implementation, especially for struggling students, involves not only delivering the curriculum well but constantly monitoring students and responding to their confusion in a timely and effective manner. “Teachers often report that teaching this scripted program is much more difficult than teaching one that is less prescribed,” Stein says. There’s often confusion between “small d” direct instruction—shorthand for any teacher-driven, explicit instruction—and the various curriculum products associated with the work of Siegfried “Zig” Engelmann across subjects, but most famously in reading. The meta-study focuses on Engelmann “big D” Direct Instruction across reading, math, spelling, language, and other academic subjects.

Direct Instruction began at the University of Illinois in the mid-1960s as a preschool program for children from deeply impoverished homes. Those who swear by it frequently invoke the results of Project Follow Through, the largest and most expensive educational research study ever mounted by the federal government, which compared the outcomes of over twenty different educational interventions in high-poverty communities over a multiyear period. “External evaluators gathered and analyzed outcome data using a variety of comparison groups and analysis techniques,” Stockard and Wood note. “The final results indicated that DI was the only intervention that had significantly positive impacts on all of the outcome measures.” Their new meta-analysis brings the DI story up to the present, but the meta-narrative hasn’t changed.

Hey, can you hear me? Is this thing on?!

Rote or scripted, sequenced or not, loved or hated, shouldn’t half a century and hundreds of studies be enough to earn DI a little respect if education is so evidence-based? “We give lip service to evidence,” explains Doug Carnine, Professor Emeritus at the University of Oregon and a NIFDI board member. “We say ‘evidence-based’ because we have to fit with the new cultural norm, but it’s not a core value. It’s tradition and ideology that prevails in education.”

Happily, there’s a burgeoning appreciation for the role of curriculum in improving teacher effectiveness and students outcomes, and increased sophistication around curriculum adoptions. But Carnine’s point is sound. There’s a long road ahead before education at large is a truly evidence-based field.

Stockard and Wood and their co-authors conclude that “The findings of this meta-analysis reinforce the conclusions of earlier meta-analyses and reviews of the literature regarding DI. Yet, despite the very large body of research supporting its effectiveness, DI has not been widely embraced or implemented.”

True that. Everybody hates Direct Instruction. All it does is work.

And that’s no joke.

— Robert Pondiscio

Robert Pondiscio is senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

This post originally appeared in Flypaper.

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