Project Follow Through: Uncovering the untapped potential of direct instruction

March 12, 2024

By Tim Worstall

The biggest investigation into teaching methods the United States has ever conducted led to no changes in teaching methods. Despite that investigation showing that there was a teaching method that really worked—and that the others tried didn’t—school choice gives us the opportunity to reverse that mistake. 

That initial claim will look pretty strong. But it is true. The program was called “Project Follow Through”. It’s well enough known that it has its own Wikipedia page. Millions of dollars were spent back in the days of LBJ on seeing which teaching methods work. A proper scientific experiment and all. This was all around the time that Head Start was being funded, and so on. Follow Through was an attempt to do science on what worked at that time.

The results?

That’s, umm, pretty darn good. We’d use stronger language where our mothers couldn’t hear us, in fact. And that one – “Direct Instruction” – a method that worked, all the others not doing so consistently, was the one that used old-fashioned and even archaic teaching methods. The teacher tells the students what they’re going to be learning, tells the students what they are learning, and then makes sure they’ve understood what they’ve learned. There is not one scrap of social and emotional learning, and there is no self-directed learning—simple instruction from the teacher to the students.

So, why didn’t this become the teaching method used across the country? Because the result didn’t agree with what the educational establishment thought should be true about how children learn. And one of the things we’ve got to understand about bureaucracies is that what they think should be true is a much stronger motivation than what is true.

The system, the school districts, and the teacher education colleges did not like that result. Therefore, the policy did not follow that scientific result. Two generations of children later, this is still true. The system doesn’t like it, so it is not used.

This is one of the reasons we are so adamant that school choice is the way forward. Only school choice gives a school—any school—the freedom to adopt the teaching methods that actually work. Not those—SEL, CRT or whatever—admired or insisted upon by the central school district bureaucracy, but those that work.

Further, as different schools adopt different policies, we will quickly zero in on those that actually work because the performance of different schools following different policies will quickly become apparent.  

Let’s make something clear here. Sure, we think Direct Instruction looks like a really good method, but we’re not wedded to it. We’re perfectly happy if other evidence comes up to show that some other method works better. We insist that we must have the system set up so that suitable teaching methods thrive and bad ones die. That means school choice. Without folks trying different things and then measuring the impact, how can we ever find out what works and what doesn’t?  

The entire point is not that there is one true method. It’s that there’s the one true system, school choice, by which methods become better and better over time.


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