Scripting Success

October 01, 1999 9 min read

When an independent research group recently examined studies of 24 “whole school” reform models, its findings contained two surprises.

‘Direct Instruction is not for all children ... or for all teachers or schools,’ concluded one review.

The first: Only three programs were found to improve student achievement. And the second: Direct Instruction, a long-scorned, lock-step approach to learning, was one of those that made the grade.

Although reformers who didn’t make the short list blasted the findings of the Washington, D.C.-based American Institutes for Research, the kudos from the group pushed Direct Instruction, a fringe reform strategy, into the national spotlight.

Developed in the 1960s by then-University of Illinois professor Siegfried Engelmann, Direct Instruction is a basic-skills approach to learning rooted in Engelmann’s own research on the teaching of reading. In its first incarnation, the program was a K-3 reading and mathematics curriculum known as DISTAR, short for Direct Instructional System for Teaching and Remediation. That early program has since expanded to include grades preK-6 and subjects such as social studies, science, writing, and spelling.

Though thousands of schools buy Direct Instruction’s commercially produced materials for use in remedial and special education, it’s never been accepted as a mainstream program. Today only about 150 schools across the country use it with all their students. “We were sort of like the plague for regular education,” says Engelmann, now 67 and a professor at the University of Oregon. “Regular education would have nothing to do with us.”

Part of this disdain for Direct Instruction stems from its rigidly sequenced, scripted lessons. Critics often deride the program as “teacher proof” because it requires little expertise or knowledge to teach using its prepared materials.

But Engelmann believes that students learn best when instruction is so structured and clear that misinterpretation is impossible. He and his colleagues have devoted years of study to pinpointing how to keep students on track in lessons. Some 30 experiments alone, Engelmann estimates, have honed the pacing of the program’s lessons.

In numerous head-to-head comparisons over the years with other classroom approaches, Direct Instruction has been the winner. The largest of those evaluations was a $59 million, eight-year study two decades ago that compared 20 different programs used in the federal Follow Through initiative, a massive educational effort launched as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Researchers concluded that Direct Instruction produced the biggest gains in students’ basic skills and thinking abilities. It also did the most to boost kids’ self-esteem. Other, smaller studies suggest the program improves students’ chances of graduating from high school and attending college.

This track record landed Direct Instruction on the honor role of reform models released by the American Institutes for Research. Of the 14 studies of Direct Instruction that met the group’s standards for scientific rigor, seven found gains in reading, nine in language, and 11 in mathematics. After a similar review last year, the American Federation of Teachers pointed to Direct Instruction as one of six schoolwide programs that shows promise in raising achievement.

And the program also made its way onto a list of research-backed models that schools can adopt to qualify for a share of $150 million in new federal grants.

Such acclaim hasn’t muted Direct Instruction’s critics. In fact, some have become more vocal, deriding glowing studies of the program or digging up other, less-favorable research. Lawrence Schweinhart, research-division chairman for the High/Scope Educational Foundation, dismisses the influential Follow Through study as “big and messy.” Schweinhart points instead to work he and a colleague conducted that raises questions about Direct Instruction’s long-term effects on kids’ social skills. For that study, the two researchers tracked groups of poor children who had been randomly assigned to one of three different types of preschool classrooms: a Direct Instruction program, a traditional nursery school program, and a program developed by High/Scope in which children plan and carry out their own learning activities.

Though preschoolers in the Direct Instruction classes gained the most academic ground in the study, they didn’t fare nearly as well socially. By age 15, 46 percent had been identified as having emotional problems-a significantly higher percentage than in either of the other two programs. Former Direct Instruction preschoolers were also more likely to run afoul of the law.

Schweinhart points to the program’s rigid, authoritarian structure as a possible source of such problems. “I don’t think there is any question that Direct Instruction is a great way to improve school achievement if that were the only goal in the world,” he says. “But it isn’t our only goal.”

Engelmann scoffs at Schweinhart’s findings. With only 68 student participants, the study was far too small to produce reliable results, he says.

Still, other Engelmann critics complain that many of the studies touting Direct Instruction’s success were conducted by researchers associated with the program. Similar charges have been leveled at Success for All, a popular reform model founded by Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Slavin. Slavin, who favorably reviewed Direct Instruction in a book he co-wrote last year, says the criticism could be a red herring. A program might be considered suspect, Slavin says, if it can count only four independent studies of its effectiveness from among 20 different reviews.

“But if all four are positive,” he adds, “that’s impressive.”

Then there are the critics who contend that Direct Instruction is getting good reviews because it’s one of the few programs that’s been around long enough to have a track record. “To have proven programs, you have to have old programs,” notes Richard Allington, chairman of the reading department at the State University of New York at Albany. “Most of these Direct Instruction programs have been around 25 or 26 years, which is why there’s more research on them.” If Direct Instruction looks good, Allington and others say, it may be because there is a dearth of effectiveness data on anything else.

Arundel Elementary is one of 18 schools in Baltimore that use Direct Instruction with support from a local nonprofit group. The school, which serves students from the surrounding housing projects and run-down apartment buildings, adopted the program several years ago to give its largely poor, minority enrollment an academic leg up.

Three years after embracing Direct Instruction, one low-income school in Baltimore is beginning to show across-the-board improvement in test results.

Today, students in Matthew Carpenter’s 6th grade class are working on reasoning and writing skills. Their task of the moment is to listen to two sentences and then transform them into a new one that begins with the word “no” and uses the word “only.”

“The wolves howled and ate at night,” Carpenter reads aloud from his Direct Instruction script. “The wolves did not eat.” The 14 youngsters bend over their papers, writing the answer as their teacher walks around, checking their work. Satisfied that the youngsters have it right, Carpenter says, “The answer is...”

The students shout out in unison. “No, the wolves only howled at night.”

Like many recent education school graduates, Carpenter never heard of Direct Instruction during his years of study. But the second-year teacher was a quick convert. He says the program’s tight structure has helped him and the disadvantaged students he teaches in an advanced course. “I like the structure,” he says. “I think it’s good for this group of kids.”

Later in the class, Carpenter moves to another task in his students’ language arts textbook: identifying the parts of speech in a series of sentences. Carpenter reads the first aloud: “That last statement is very misleading,” then, scanning his script, asks, “What’s the noun in the subject?” He snaps his fingers, and the students shout, “Statement!”

“What’s the verb, everyone?” Fingers snap, and the students shout, “Is!”

“Good job,” the teacher replies.

Except for one hour-long period, Carpenter uses Direct Instruction all day. And all his colleagues at the school do the same.

Three years after embracing Direct Instruction, Arundel is beginning to show across-the-board improvement in test results. This spring, the school’s 1st and 3rd graders posted some of the biggest gains in the city on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. At nearby City Springs Elementary, the program is credited with a much-publicized turnaround. Once considered one of the worst schools in Baltimore, City Springs now has orderly classrooms and higher test scores.

“I think the better order comes because kids are more engaged in what they are doing,” says Muriel Berkeley, director of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, the nonprofit group supporting Direct Instruction in the city. “We make a lot of assumptions in education. A child looks bright or a child knows how to read, but we don’t consider that the child may have some missing skills. What Direct Instruction gives you is a vertebrae-a backbone-to make sure you haven’t skipped any skills.”

To keep lessons moving quickly and efficiently, Direct Instruction schools group students by ability. Still, as Carpenter’s class illustrates, this can pose problems. Students sometimes jump ahead of the teacher in their books, moving to new material before he can read aloud the scripted questions and prompts. Today, after Carpenter tries to hold them back during a math lesson, one student complains: “We already know this stuff.”

Though teachers may be tempted to let students work at their own pace, Engelmann says that won’t work. Because each skill builds on another, even the most agile students need to stick with the lessons, he says. Pacing and repetition are part of the game plan. Students do not really master a skill until they repeat it again and again in different contexts.

Conducting lessons properly, program proponents admit, can be tiring. Teachers must be “on” all day long. “It’s like actors in a play,” Berkeley explains. “We don’t ask the actor to write the play, but he interprets the play and presents it.”

Engelmann estimates that it takes most teachers about two years to nail down the approach and delivery. Official training begins with a week of inservice. Then, Direct Instruction coaches visit classrooms monthly. Unlike other kinds of trainers, these coaches don’t hang back and take notes. They jump in when they see a potential problem-a tactic that rubs some teachers the wrong way. “It’s like they undermine you in front of your students,” says James Sarath, another 6th grade teacher at Arundel.

Engelmann hopes that several studies and teacher surveys now in the works will answer concerns about the program. Still, it’s hard to imagine that Direct Instruction will ever be widely embraced, even with the recent endorsements. When Arundel Elementary adopted the program in 1996- 97, several teachers wanted nothing to do with it and transferred to other schools.

“Direct Instruction is not for all children under all circumstances or for all teachers or schools,” concluded a review of the program by the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Slavin of Johns Hopkins puts it this way: “Research or no research, many schools would say it’s just not a program that fits with their philosophy.”

--Debra Viadero