Vital Signs

The Success of Direct Instruction

What if the federal government spent a billion tax dollars over nearly three decades to study thoroughly the question of which teaching method best instills knowledge, sharpens cognitive skills, and enhances self-esteem in young children? And what if such a study were able to determine exactly which method best accomplishes all three? Would American parents like to know about it?

The study and its conclusion both exist. Project Follow Through, initiated in 1968 under Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty to "follow through" on Project Head Start, spent an estimated one billion dollars through the Office (now Department) of Education, the Office of Economic Opportunity, and dozens of private sponsors to test and evaluate an array of very different educational methods. Despite Project Follow Through's experimental nature, it was also a fully funded and comprehensive social services program. A total of 700,000 students in 170 poor communities around the nation were involved. Parents were allowed to decide which method or model would be adopted at their local school; the government then funded the model through such sponsors as universities and private research institutes.

The last funds for the study, which was the largest educational experiment ever conducted, were disbursed in 1995. What happened then is worthy of another study—this one in the politics of bureaucracy. "The education profession has...

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