The benefits from phonics and direct instruction
Levels of student achievement in our central city schools clearly lag those of the rest of the state. This is especially true of our largest city, Milwaukee. The two largest gaps commonly noted are those between low-income and non-low-income students and those between whites and minorities. These achievement gaps are large both within the district and in comparisons of Milwaukee with the rest of the state. In order to truly show improvement in the education of our youth, both these achievement gaps need to be addressed.
Over the years many approaches have been developed to attempt to address these gaps. Few seem to have succeeded. But there is one among them that has been demonstrated elsewhere to be successful, and it is being utilized to some degree in Milwaukee. That approach is called Direct Instruction or DI for short. This is a specific form of instruction that employs phonics to teach reading skills, and scripts and repetition to teach many skills in addition to reading. DI is used primarily for reading and math, but it also is employed in social studies, science, and writing. DI is largely used in elementary schools, but it is now being utilized in some high schools (e.g., Madison and Washington) to assist students who did not previously develop the reading skills they need to succeed in high school.
The intent of this study is to evaluate the impact of Direct Instruction in Milwaukee to see the degree to which it has helped to raise levels of student achievement in reading and math at the elementary school level. Evaluating Direct Instruction is not an easy task. The impact of any intervention in education is difficult to assess because of the many factors that affect outcomes. DI is no different. Nevertheless, it is a task worth undertaking.
As the reader will note below, there is a good deal of evidence, from studies over the last thirty years, that DI helps students achieve at higher levels. DI and the research have been controversial; that is one of the reasons for yet another study. There is, however, a reluctance and even animosity toward this form of instruction. Some teachers complain that DI is boring, or that it limits reading comprehension. Others think it is offensive because it does not allow students to be exposed to literature. Still others believe that students learn best by their own exposure to words. On the other hand, teachers who use DI say that reading ability and comprehension both increase; it is easy to use since all the lessons are already laid out; and that it is exciting to see children learn to read. The debate continues.
The animosity toward DI is especially evident in our teacher training institutions: in Wisconsin none offer instruction in Direct Instruction for regular education students. Does DI deserve such disdain, or does it merit a place among the accepted and even endorsed methods of teaching? That is what we hope to answer by yet another study of Direct Instruction.
This analysis is different from its predecessors. It does not compare schools. Rather it tracks individual students over time and compares, in aggregate, the outcomes of those with varying years of exposure to DI to those who have had no exposure to DI. What complicates the comparison is that those who are exposed to DI are more likely to be different from those who have not had DI experience. It is the low-income, inner-city schools that are more likely to elect DI because they have achievement results that are unsatisfactory. These schools are more likely to have a high- er proportion of low-income children, more students identified as requiring special education, more minority children, and higher student mobility rates, to name a few differences. Thus, comparing the outcomes of students with DI to those without cannot be done without taking into account several other factors.
This study attempts to give as clear a reading as possible on the impacts of DI. A case is first made for the concept of DI. Major elements of research regarding how we learn and how well DI works are then reviewed. When it comes time for new empirical evidence, it focuses exclusively on recent MPS students. The result is a detailed assessment of the impact of DI on the achievement of a city-school population.