‘Direct Instruction’ Narrows Wisconsin’s Achievement Gap

Published October 1, 2005

A new report shows that “direct instruction” (DI), a teaching method relying heavily on phonics and repetition, has helped raise reading and math scores, particularly among minority and low-income students, in Milwaukee’s public schools. The report, prepared by Prof. Sammis White of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, was released by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI) in July.

White’s report examined the test results of 23,000 third- through fifth-grade students, comparing them based on how many years of DI they had received, their economic and ethnic backgrounds, and other factors.

White found low-income students with five years of DI tracked between third and fourth grades increased their reading and math scores more than higher-income students did. Reading scores for low-income DI students rose by 4.2 percent, compared to 3.9 percent for higher-income students. Math score improvements were even more impressive, rising 6.6 percent for low-income DI students, compared to 4.7 percent for the others.

White wrote, a “few-points distinction between students on several comparisons of test scores … may seem immaterial, but they are not,” pointing out that gains of .8 percent to 2.9 percent may represent a full year’s progress for students.

Improvement Increases over Time

The study found the improved test scores were made mostly by students with several years of exposure to DI. Students who had been taught using DI in some grades but not others did not show the same gains. It also found students who received DI were generally poorer and more likely to be nonwhite.

For example, fourth graders with five years of DI, who are more likely to be poor than those with no DI, averaged scores of 632 for reading and 619 for math on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts (WKCE) tests, only one point behind students with no DI in each subject.

Given the fact that DI students are generally poorer and more likely to be minority than non-DI students, White believes this evidence shows great promise for closing the “achievement gap” between low-income and minority students and their peers.

The study found low-income fifth graders with five years of DI averaged 660 for reading and 630 for math, better than the average score for all low-income fifth graders of 646 in reading and 626 in math. “The difference in reading is about equivalent to one half year of progress,” White wrote, “and the 660 is again earned by a lower-income population, suggesting an even greater achievement.”

Madison Sees Impressive Results

WPRI also released an account of DI used by one school in Madison that further bolsters the evidence showing the approach benefits students.

Lapham Elementary School, a kindergarten-through-second grade school, decided in 1999 to abandon the Madison district’s preferred reading program, known as “Balanced Literacy” and based on the theory that children can learn reading without explicit phonics training and practice, in favor of a phonics-rich program called “Direct Instruction: SRA Reading Mastery” for first graders.

The results have been impressive, particularly for black students. By the time Lapham students reach third grade, their reading scores are near the top of the district.

Before switching to DI, only 9 percent of black third graders at the school achieved at the “advanced” level for reading. By 2003, 38 percent were “advanced,” compared with 9 percent of “advanced” black students district-wide that year. For low-income students, 32 percent were at the “advanced” level for reading in 2003, up from 19 percent in 1998.

Despite its success, DI’s future at Lapham is in doubt. The principal who pushed for teachers to focus on phonics has left, and the new principal has made Balanced Literacy the school’s reading program once again. Apparently responding to pressure from administrators in the Madison school district, two new first-grade classrooms were made “off-limits” to DI in 2004.

Research Supports DI Expansion

White recommends that the Milwaukee Public Schools expand use of DI in the classroom.

Among other steps, he suggests giving teachers stipends to attend DI training seminars offered by the district, increasing funding for DI programs, and creating a Center for Direct Instruction at a local college or university to expose more teachers to the concept. He also calls for exposing more administrators and principals to DI, in order to overcome their reluctance to support phonics-rich reading programs.

WPRI President James Miller agreed with White’s findings. “Our recent study on Direct Instruction shows enormous potential for the education of poor, inner-city students,” Miller said.

Sean Parnell ([email protected]) is vice president – external affairs for The Heartland Institute.

For more information …

The two Wisconsin Policy Research Institute reports are available online at http://www.wpri.org/Reports/Volume18/Vol18no4.pdf and http://www.wpri.org/WIInterest/Vol14no2/Esp14.2.pdf.

See also: “High-Poverty Students Excel with Direct Instruction,” School Reform News, December 2002, http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=10753, and “Direct Instruction: A Quiet Revolution in Milwaukee Public Schools,” Wisconsin Interest, http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=9145.