A new peer-reviewed meta-analysis of 328 studies performed over the past 50 years finds “strong positive results” for a style of teaching known as direct instruction. It was found to be effective across races, sexes, ages, family income levels, and subjects: “all of the estimated effects were positive and all were statistically significant except results” related to non-academic effects such as personality and feelings.
It’s a particularly noteworthy finding because the field of education research is well-known for producing especially shoddy, ideology-driven, and therefore untrustworthy work. The social sciences replication crisis is particularly acute in education, meaning that when you hear “research says” in the context of schooling, nearly all of the time what follows is bunk.
That doesn’t mean that there is no good education research. It means that simply tacking on “research” to some finding is not good enough to enhance its credibility. It means people need to examine the research themselves or find trustworthy sources of analysis before they start believing what “the experts” and a very gullible media promote. (Here’s a good place to start, and another.)
For example, it’s very popular to believe that people have dominant learning styles such as visual, kinesthetic, and auditory. But cognitive scientists find no such thing. The man who came up with this theory, Howard Gardner, has made a huge career out of it and continues to be treated as a leader in his field, but academic reviewers say paying attention to him is a complete waste of time (and, quite often, taxpayer dollars for consultants, books, training, and more). Feels and fads trumping knowledge is endemic to schooling.
So What Is Direct Instruction, Anyway?
Back to direct instruction. What is this thing that has defied the odds and come out as an actually proven method of effective teaching? Here’s a video showing and telling about it from a network of inexpensive U.S. private schools that use the method.
Direct instruction (DI), also described as “clear teaching,” refers to a curricula that systematically teaches discrete concepts step by step towards a clearly established academic goal. Students are required to master foundational concepts before moving on. This kind of teaching lends itself to subjects that can be broken down into concrete steps and systematically taught, such as reading, math, grammar, and spelling, so is a strongest fit overall for grade-schooling. Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution gives more details about how cognitive psychologists develop such curricula:
First, a skill such as reading or subtraction is broken down into simple components, then a method to teach that component is developed and tested in lab and field. The method must be explicitly codified and when used must be free of vagueness so students are reliably led to the correct interpretation. Materials, methods and scripts are then produced for teachers to follow very closely. Students are ability not age-grouped and no student advances before mastery. The lessons are fast-paced and feedback and assessment are quick.
Examples of DI-style curricula people may be familiar with include Saxon Math and DISTAR Reading, as well as the at-home book many parents (including me) use to teach their littles to read: “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.” Just about anyone can use these programs to teach successfully, making them well-suited for mass adoption and tight budgets, which is a heck of a lot more realistic and scaleable than finding or training lots of star teachers.
“The findings of this meta-analysis reinforce the conclusions of earlier meta-analyses and reviews of the literature regarding DI,” the study authors conclude. “Yet, despite the very large body of research supporting its effectiveness, DI has not been widely embraced or implemented.”
The Education World Is Actively Anti-Efficacy
In fact, the reigning ethos of U.S. public schooling, as well as most schooling around the world, is directly opposed to DI-style teaching, and has been for decades. The study authors note: “Many current curriculum recommendations, such as those included within the Common Core, promote student-led and inquiry-based approaches with substantial ambiguity in instructional practices,” i.e. essentially the opposite of DI.
Rather than specific, concrete, knowledge-focused, systematically constructed, and carefully tested, the dominant methods teacher’s colleges pass on and state licensure requirements reinforce are open-ended, abstract, leaderless or leader-lite, focused on process instead of content, descended from romantic ideology rather than proven experience, and so on. New incarnations of these failed methods — such as the open-ended “playlist” microschools fad particularly heavy on the West Coast and the trend towards high-tech, open-floor-plan schools — get massive press and are seen as on the cutting edge of school improvements even though they very expensively recycle many old, failed ideas. Students in these kinds of schools tend to perform well because of their demographic profiles, not superior instruction.
U.S. schooling has been subject to frenzied reform efforts for at least a century. Yet only about 1 percent of U.S. grade schools use direct instruction. Schools, teachers, and districts are notoriously ideologically biased against the sparse curricula and teaching methods with proven results. Why on earth would U.S. schools not flock to one of the few things that has a consistently strong track record of success?
Of course, nearly every complex problem has multiple sources, especially when people are involved. Many U.S. communities prioritize, both financially and socially, their schools’ athletic programs above their academic programs. A third of U.S. parents think of school as a jobs program rather than a citizenship program. Many parents care more about whether their school is close to home than whether it provides a quality education. Suffice it to say, a sufficiently large number of parents and communities care more about school amenities than they do the real reason it’s justified to force their fellow taxpayers to sponsor these schools in the first place — that would be the formation of self-governing citizens fit for our democratic republic.
So there is some pressure lacking on the demand side, although parents overall still tend to care quite deeply about academic quality, too. Education researcher Sandra Stotsky also blames the lack of intellectual preparation and moral courage endemic to education bureacracies and their supervisory politicians. There’s certainly something there, as well. I think, however, that the biggest driver of U.S. schools’ capture by ineffective, politicized curricula and teaching methods is their structure as a series of increasingly centralized monopolies. In short, U.S. schools continue getting money and students regardless of their results.
Centralized Carrots and Sticks Are Not Going to Fix This
Predominantly Republican reform types have tried to solve this core problem by threatening schools rather than dramatically restructuring their incentives. They fought the blob, and the blob won. Every single sanction they’ve tied to gobs of funding increases has been weakened to the point of meaninglessness. Thus U.S. schools have tread water for nigh on to 50 years despite widespread public and policymaker knowledge of their mediocrity.
From this we should have learned that you cannot impose reform. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess says, “Policy turns out to be a pretty lousy tool for improving education because policy can make people do things, but it can’t make them do them well.” We can’t make teachers and schools use effective curricula and teaching methods. But we can change the circumstances so that they want to use them, and so that desire trumps their competing desires such as wanting to save face about being wrong for so long about so much.
How? By aligning schools’ interests with kids’ interests. By making it so that schools only get money and students if they demonstrate they are using both things well. One word for that is a “market.” A market is where two people agree on a mutually agreeable goal and about how they are going to get there, without coercion. It’s where a teacher can go to a college and say “I want to learn how to teach reading according to the latest cognitive science,” and the college doesn’t say “We don’t do that because it’s impossible to make teaching licenses contingent upon demonstrated skill because we colleges collectively control the licensing process and revamping our program would cost us money we don’t need to spend under the current system and reveal we’ve been cheating prospective teachers and the public for decades.”
The people getting the money for something should not be the ones determining under what criteria they will offer that product. Under our monopoly schooling system, that is precisely what happens: schools, school districts, teacher’s colleges, and state and federal departments of education get money according to strings they collectively negotiate with themselves, rather than with parents and the public. If you think otherwise, try getting your state lawmaker to sponsor a school reform bill — any school reform bill. Either he won’t do it or it will be coopted during the legislative process by the cronies it’s supposed to affect.
That’s because monopolies create very powerful special interests whose sole purpose is to protect those interests. And they undermine the public’s interests using the public’s money. In short, to get U.S. public schools to actively care about better instruction, what we need is some massive trust-busting.