Why Not Direct Instruction?

Robert Pondiscio calls it the Rodney Dangerfield of curriculum as he berates the teaching community for disrespecting and neglecting  Zig Engelmann’s Direct Instruction program. Despite showing clear evidence of positive educational outcomes, Direct Instruction has been at best ignored, at worst actively rooted out for over forty years.

And whose fault is that?

..Direct Instruction, however effective, goes against the grain of generations of teachers trained and flattered into the certain belief that they alone know what’s best for their students.

Emphasis mine own, because oh, my goodness.

Trained and flattered.

Trained and flattered?




I’ll leave you all to snorfle.

I do not dispute that many teachers think DI is creepy and horrible.  Here’s a fairly recent implementation [tap] that might [tap] help [tap] explain why [tap] teachers shudder. Word one, what word? Oorah!

But now, a question for serious people who want serious answers that don’t require the pretense that teachers are trained and flattered and capable of shutting down educational developments they dislike: why isn’t Direct Instruction more popular?

I’ve read Zig Engelmann’s book, Teaching Needy Kids in Our Backwards System,  and he doesn’t blame teachers. He thinks teachers are backwards and not terribly bright, but argues that most teachers introduced to his curriculum love it.

No, Engelmann puts the blame elsewhere.


For example, Direct Instruction unambiguously won Project Follow through. Originally, the program director had intended to identify winners and losers, to prevent schools from picking weak curriculum. But ultimately, the results were released without any such designation. Such a decision is well beyond any teacher’s paygrade.

According to Engelmann, the Ford Foundation was behind the effort to minimize his product’s clear victory. The foundation awarded a grant to a research project to evaluate the results.

The main purpose of the critique was to prevent the Follow Through evaluation results from influencing education policy. The panel’s report asserted that it was  inappropriate to ask, “Which model works best?” Rather, it should consider such other questions as “What makes the models work?” or “How can one make the models work better?”

Engelmann believes that Ford Foundation wanted to feel less foolish about funding all sorts of failed curriculum. I have no idea whether that’s true. But certainly Project Follow Through did not declare winners and losers, and thus from the beginning DI was not given credit for an unambiguously superior result.

Teachers didn’t turn Ford Foundation against DI.

But Engelmann and Becker were expecting decisionmakers to appreciate their success even if Project Follow Through didn’t designate them the victor. Becker wrote up their results for Harvard Educational Review, expecting tremendous response and got a few responses bitching about the study’s design.

I mean, cmon. Teachers don’t read research. That wasn’t us.

Engelmann and Becker fought for recognition all the way up the federal government food chain,  including politicians, and got no results. Shocking, I know.

Zig reserves his harshest criticism for district superintendents, describing a number of times when his program was just ripped out of schools despite sterling results. Parents, teachers, principals complained. One principal was fired for refusing to discontinue the program.

Throughout his memoir, Engelmann seems extremely perplexed, as well as angered, by his program’s failure, and to his credit is still determined to pound down the doors and win acceptance. His partner, Wesley Becker, was less copacetic. After years of rejection by his university and policymakers, Becker left education entirely and drank himself to death in less than a decade.   A few disapproving elementary school teachers aren’t going to induce that degree of existential despair.

Teachers didn’t kneecap Direct Instruction curriculum because it imposed an “intolerable burden” upon them, as Pondiscio dramatically proclaims. No. Decisionmakers killed DI programs. Time and again, management at the federal, state, and local level refuse to implement or worse, destroyed existing successful programs.

Blaming teachers and educators for what are manifestly management decisions is not only contradicted by all the available evidence, but failing to engage with a genuine mystery.

Why have so many districts refused to use Direct Instruction? Why has it been the target of so much enmity by power players in the educational field?

Those are questions that deserve investigation.


I did some more digging and have some data to talk about. I also want to discuss Engelmann’s book, since he often contradicts the claims made about his program.

But I’ll leave that for another day, because every so often I like to prove I can get under 1000 words.


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14 responses to “Why Not Direct Instruction?

  • Michael Pershan

    I look forward to your future posts, since I’d love to know more about what Zig writes about. I haven’t yet read anything by him.

    I agree that reform-types should really ease up on the teachers, and for that matter the teacher educators. Their only crime is lying. That is, the environment doesn’t allow teachers and people working in schools to tell the truth, which is that while schools are primarily in the business of teaching kids as much as we can, it’s not anyone’s only priority. There are other things that teachers, administrators, parents and kids value besides instructional efficiency.

    (Why, then, can’t we just talk about that? Because while none of the educational stakeholders agree on everything, we can all agree on increasing knowledge. So we’ve all agreed to only talk about that, and to couch any other values in terms of efficiency. This is how you end up with a constant tug over evidence, even when the evidence really seems to go in a clear direction.)

    Blame Zig, then, for not figuring out a way to design a program that all teachers and parents love. Maybe there is a version of Direct Instruction that doesn’t make a lot of educators want to puke. He didn’t design that.

    Another puzzle: what does it mean to say that DI is effective if teachers don’t want to use it? It’s like if Pepsi Co celebrated how delicious its newest drink is, even though its smell keeps most people from even tasting it.

    • educationrealist

      I think the recent hooha over common core and testing rubbed reformers’ nose in the reality that the public isn’t terribly interested in educational efficiency, even for their own kids.

      “what does it mean to say that DI is effective if teachers don’t want to use it? ”

      Great analogy. However, Zig seems to say that teachers like the program. I’m wondering if this is a range restriction problem. High school teachers are horrified by it. Elementary and middle school specialists with elite educations likewise. But your average elementary school teacher, all 3.5 million of them, may have different opinions. So when we say “teachers hate it” we’re actually talking about a small segment.

      Which makes blaming teachers even funnier, if it turns out teachers who actually have to use it like it!

      But if not, great analogy!

  • Roger Sweeny

    Many years ago, I downloaded Englemann’s book Project Follow Through–I think it was a PDF file for every chapter–and wound up with an inch high stack of paper and two drained cartridges, which suggested to me that, contrary to some high hopes, books printed on demand were not going to revolutionize the publishing business.

    Anyway, it was pretty interesting–and discouraging. The idea of building up skills in a logical order and of not moving on until students actually have mastery of one level and can apply it automatically at the next level seemed reasonable to me. Though the amount of repetition and working through a script seemed like it would feel too mechanical for a lot of teachers (K-5 teachers are the touchy-feelies of the educational world). Also, everyone in the business (including administrators, professors, and state and federal bureaucrats) wants to believe that teachers are highly trained professionals. To a significant extent, DI doesn’t treat them that way

    Since I was teaching high school, I didn’t try to learn anything more about it. My tentative answer to “why don’t schools use DI?” was a combination of the above, “it’s not as good as Engelmann makes it out to be”, and “it would require significant tracking and tracking is now taboo in the ed world.”

    • educationrealist

      Yep. Coupled with “where’s the evidence that DI through six years of elementary school leads to ending the achievement gap in high school”? And if it doesn’t, then what exactly has been achieved?

      • Roger Sweeny

        To be snarky, where’s the evidence that anything in elementary school leads to ending the achievement gap in high school? There isn’t any because NO ONE HAS SUCCEEDED IN ENDING THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP IN HIGH SCHOOL. Given how students enter the education system, I don’t think it’s even possible.

        But it might be possible to raise the floor. To get pretty much everyone up to 6th or 8th grade level of literacy and numeracy. I think that would be an extremely important and useful achievement.

      • Momof4

        Roger beat me to it! I think that most kids could, with DI, appropriate behavioral standards and appropriate grouping, achieve what were 8th grade grad standards of literacy, numeracy and general knowledge at my school, in the 50-60s, although some kids would need an extra year or two. That would enable many of the kids now drowning in the (weakened) college-for-all morass to handle good vo tech options, which demand that level of literacy and numeracy.

        Eliminating the achievement gap, at a real HS level and beyond, is likely impossible because that success is inextricably linked to IQ; both in the academic college-prep curriculum and in vo tech. Higher ability kids will have more options, learn new material more easily and rapidly, and do better; the reason that aptitude tests for employment were used. The Griggs v Duke Power SCOTUS decision essentially substituted an expensive college degree for an inexpensive test that anyone could take. Those who passed could be taught to do a variety of jobs. The military’s ASVAB test does essentially the same thing; the higher the score, the more options the candidate has. The military also uses direct instruction to teach everyone from new recruits to senior officers.

    • educationrealist

      Forgot to say: I just don’t think it’s possible to create high school curriculum that builds skills in a logical order, and I think again we fail to acknowledge that high school is an exponential leap above the difficulty of elementary school.

  • Roger Sweeny

    Agreed, on both counts–though I think there are some things you can say about order, like don’t take physics until you have become comfortable with algebra.

  • Roger Sweeny

    Sports teams do a number of things to get ready to play a game. There’s “strength and conditioning” in the weight room and on the track. There’s passing drills and blocking drills and this, that, and the other drills. There’s watching film of your previous games and your opponents games. And there’s scrimmaging against members of your own team, putting it all together in conditions like a real game.

    I think of DI like the first two. You’re drilling yourself to automaticity, so you don’t have to think about those basic skills. You can now read for meaning and actually use arithmetic to solve real world problems.

    I assume that if it is successful, DI makes itself unnecessary after several years of school, certainly by high school.

  • littskad

    My suspicion is that DI would work for certain skills (reading, arithmetic), but not so much for others. It’s for learning to play scales, not for jazz improvisation. Of course, you can’t play jazz if you can’t play scales…

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