Ignoring what works in education

John McWhorter puzzles over why schools still aren’t teaching disadvantaged black kids to read when we’ve known how for four decades:

The tragedy is that the discussion about black kids in school — boys as well as girls — takes place as if there were some great mystery about how to teach children from disadvantaged homes how to read. An entire plangent and circular conversation drifts eternally over a problem that, at least in the case of reading, was solved way back during the Nixon administration.

Back then, in the early ’70s, Siegfried Engelmann led a government-sponsored investigation called Project Follow Through. It compared nine teaching methods and tracked their results among 75,000 children from kindergarten through third grade. It found that the Direct Instruction (DI) method of teaching reading — based on sounding out words rather than learning them whole (phonics), and on a tightly scripted format emphasizing repetition and student participation — was vastly more effective than any of the others. And for poor kids. Including black ones. . . .

Decade after decade, DI has continued to kick serious butt all across this great land. Houston, Baltimore, Milwaukee — you name it; I am unaware of anywhere it hasn’t worked, and it’s hard to even choose one example as a demonstration. In 2001, students in the mostly black Richmond district in Virginia were scoring abysmally in reading. With a DI-style program, just four years later, three-quarters of black students passed the third-grade reading test. Meanwhile, over in wealthy Fairfax County, where DI was scorned, the minority of black students taking that test — despite ample funding — were passing it at the rate of merely 59 percent.

I’ve read a fair amount about Direct Instruction (DI) over the past year. Everything I’ve seen indicates that it works, and works well. Project Follow Through (PFT) was the largest and most expensive educational study in history. If I recall, it cost tax payers a billion dollars. It was designed specifically to determine which teaching methods do and do not work. You can read a summary of PFT here, but the short version is that McWhorter has it exactly right when he says that DI kicked serious butt.

Having identified the most effective methodology, it was a fairly simple matter to publicize the results ignore the results and begin transitioning schools across the country to the new program continue doing what we were doing.

No, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I didn’t quite believe it at first. Even government couldn’t be that clueless, could they? Well, I did a little digging around and I’m sorry to report that, as McWhorter suggests: they could.

Apparently, the “experts” are quite married to their pet theories. And even though the teaching programs based on those pet theories performed worst in the PFT, the study didn’t come back with the “right” answer, so it was ignored.

I’ve seen ads for a company that comes into your home or business and cleans up after fires and floods and such. Their slogan is “Like it never even happened.”

In a nutshell, that’s the story of Project Follow Through, a billion dollars, and the prospects of 40 years of public school kids.

*Poof* Like it never even happened.

Update: There’s some good discussion about this article and the merits of Direct Instruction on Joanne Jacobs blog. Of particular interest to me was a long comment citing a lot of more recent research that supports the effectiveness of DI. DI may not be the holy grail of effective teaching, but it’s part of an elite group of programs which stand out sharply from the rest. Further, these elite programs share a core set of evidence-based elements. In other words, we have the list of ingredients and several recipes for putting them together successfully. We should be putting these effective programs to work and continuing to do the research to make them even more effective.

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