Studies Cite Learning Gains In Direct Instruction Schools

By Debra Viadero — April 17, 2002 5 min read

Schools using Direct Instruction, a teaching method sometimes criticized for its tightly scripted teaching lessons, are generally seeing gains in student learning, according to a new package of studies that tracked the program in Florida, Maryland, and Texas.

The studies, published this month in the Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, are important, experts said, because they represent the first published empirical research on the program, or adaptations of it, in more than a decade.

They look at districts in four locations—Baltimore; Broward County, Fla.; Fort Worth, Texas; and Houston—in which anywhere from six to 30 schools began using the program in the 1990s.

“Direct Instruction is a powerful tool, and educators have a right to know it’s out there. Some may choose it and some may not,” said Muriel V. Berkeley, the president of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, a nonprofit group supporting efforts to put the program in place in 16 schools in that city.

As promising as the test-score gains look, however, commentators on both the pro and con sides of the debate over the controversial school improvement program said they are not the last word on the program’s effectiveness.

The findings are inconclusive, educators said, for a variety of reasons. In Broward County, results were hard to disentangle because the program was combined with other educational innovations. Other studies either focused only on the early elementary grades or looked at programs that were not implemented as faithfully as program developers might have hoped, experts said.

“We do the best we can with what we’ve got, and we don’t give up because we don’t have perfect studies,” said Martha Abele Mac Iver, who helped edit the special issue and was a co-author of one of the studies in it.

Developed more than 30 years ago by Sigfried Engelmann, Direct Instruction is used in thousands of schools nationwide. It is one of only a handful of comprehensive school reform models cited for having a solid research base. Critics up until now, however, have complained that many of the studies were old. (“A Direct Challenge,” March 17, 1999.)

Better Than What?

In her study, which was conducted with Elizabeth Kemper, a researcher at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, Ms. Mac Iver focused on Baltimore, where six of the city’s lowest-achieving schools began using Direct Instruction programs in the fall of 1996.

The researchers found that students who started in the program as kindergartners that year were reading on grade level by the end of 3rd grade, and children who came to Direct Instruction in 2nd grade were reading close to grade level by 5th grade.

But so were children in six other demographically matched schools that were using a different reading curriculum with systematic phonics instruction.

“There’s evidence here that Direct Instruction is definitely helping some of the students,” said Ms. Mac Iver, an associate research scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “The issue we still need to ferret out is whether they’re doing significantly better than students getting other types of instruction.”

Ms. Berkeley noted, however, that the numbers don’t tell the whole story in Baltimore, where the program’s implementation and success rates have varied from school to school—especially in the early implementation years.

At poverty-ridden City Springs Elementary School, one of the first such schools, reading scores have climbed from among the district’s lowest to its fifth highest. In others, the program seems to have had less of an impact.

In Houston, on the other hand, where some of the district’s most disadvantaged schools began using Direct Instruction reading techniques with pupils in kindergarten, 1st grade, and 2nd grade through a program called Rodeo Institute for Teacher Excellence, or RITE, the positive results seemed clearer. The number of schools using the program in that city grew from six in the fall of 1996 to 20 in 2001.

As part of their evaluation, researchers from the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation, and Statistics at the University of Houston compared the gains that program students made on state reading tests and other measures with those for children in other schools with the same socioeconomic makeups.

They concluded that the RITE program accelerated the pace of students’ prereading and reading skills in kindergarten and 1st grade. What’s more, the students whose scores improved the most were those who had been in the program the longest.

Even though the rate of growth for the program participants slowed in 2nd grade, the researchers noted, the nonprogram students still had not caught up to them by the end of that year.

Researchers documented similar gains in Fort Worth, where 61 schools in 1998 adopted either Direct Instruction reading programs or the Open Court reading program, a commercial program that also teaches reading systematically. Compared with students in more traditional reading classes, the study found, kindergarten and 1st grade students in both of the new reading programs did better on nationally normed reading tests.

Testing Caveats

However, in a commentary on all of the studies, Barak Rosenshine suggests the two Texas studies didn’t go far enough because they assessed students only through 2nd grade.

Testing should go through 3rd or 4th grade, when students move from simply decoding words to understanding what they mean, said Mr. Rosenshine, a professor emeritus of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Both studies are ongoing, and findings for later years are yet to come.

Jerry Silbert, who wrote college textbooks on Direct Instruction and has helped implement its use, said that some of the districts studied were using only a narrow slice of the more comprehensive Direct Instruction model, which now spans a wide range of subjects and grade levels. He also noted that in Fort Worth, teachers only received one-fifth of the level of coaching that program developers recommend.

A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2002 edition of Education Week as Studies Cite Learning Gains In Direct Instruction Schools


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