High-Poverty Students Excel with Direct Instruction

Published December 1, 2002

In successful high-poverty and high-minority schools in California, the predominant teaching method is direct instruction, where student learning is directed by and centered on the teacher. But a majority of teachers in America’s elementary schools reject this proven approach in favor of a much less structured–and less effective–teaching style called “student-centered” learning.

These are the findings of two recent studies examining how teachers teach. One study, “They Have Overcome: High-poverty, High-performing Schools in California,” is from the Pacific Research Institute (PRI) and reports what teaching methods are prevalent in successful high-poverty schools. The other study, “What Do Teachers Teach?” is a Manhattan Institute Civic Report that explores what teaching methods are most often used by America’s fourth- and eighth-grade teachers.

The findings of both studies have important implications for education reform, since how teachers teach matters. The PRI study shows that schools using research-proven teaching methods and curricula succeed even when confronted with the challenges of poverty and deprivation.

“If all public schools, their districts, and the state adopted these strategies, the quality of education for California’s children would rise quickly and dramatically,” concludes Lance T. Izumi, author of the PRI report. Since principals have detailed what works in these successful schools, the next step, Izumi argues, “should be to replicate their reforms in all of the state’s underachieving schools.”

According to the Manhattan Institute report, the teaching methods found to be successful in high-poverty schools are generally the least favored among teachers in a typical elementary school. Only two teachers in five believe the adults in the classroom should decide what students will learn. Most teachers embrace “student-directed” learning, where the children’s interests matter more than subject mastery.

Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, finds these survey results particularly troubling because student-centered methods conflict with current reforms. He predicts “an education train wreck” when taxpayers and parents realize that what they demand through standards-based accountability systems is not happening behind classroom doors.

“[I]t’s nearly impossible to imagine standards-based reform succeeding in classrooms where students direct the key decisions about what will be learned,” Finn writes in the foreword to the Manhattan Institute study.

High-Poverty, High-Performing Schools

The Pacific Research Institute report, “They Have Overcome,” examines the success of eight California elementary schools serving poor and predominantly minority students, where more than 80 percent of students are served by the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. Each of the eight schools received a ranking of at least 7 out of 10 on the state’s Academic Performance Index, a ranking based on Stanford 9 and California Standards Test scores. Few schools with the poverty levels reported by these schools match their student achievement levels.

Based on interviews with principals, the study focuses on how each school has built a track record of success serving students most schools leave behind. The principals attribute the success of their schools to specific policies, including the use of research-based curricula and teaching methods, integration of state academic standards in the classroom, frequent assessment, professional development that focuses on subject matter, and strong discipline.

Most of the schools use direct instruction to teach reading, math, and other subjects. Direction instruction requires highly scripted, fast-paced instruction that breaks down each task into small, sequential steps. Students practice each step and are assessed for mastery. Direct instruction is effective in teaching basic skills and developing higher-order thinking skills.

“Direct Instruction teachers, operating from detailed scripts, tell kids what they need to know, rather than letting them discover it for themselves, as ed schools advise,” explains American Enterprise Institute fellow Lynne Cheney. “Direct Instruction teachers drill students on lessons (a method education professors sneeringly call ‘drill and kill’). They reward right answers and immediately correct wrong ones, flying in the face of the ed-school dogma downplaying the importance of accuracy.”

The success of direct instruction has been well known for decades, and recent studies continue to support the method. As the PRI report points out, direct instruction was one of the only methodologies found to improve student achievement in a 1999 American Institutes for Research study comparing 24 different teaching methods. According to the AIR study, direct instruction also lays a foundation for success in high school and college.

A 1996 analysis of 34 separate studies comparing direct instruction to other teaching methodologies had similar findings, showing direct instruction effective in improving student achievement. In most comparisons, direct instruction students outperformed those taught by student-centered methods.

But, as Cheney’s comment indicates, many education schools reject direct instruction in favor of student-directed approaches, discovery learning, and other methods where the teacher functions more as a facilitator than a teacher. The facilitator’s role is to urge children to construct or discover knowledge on their own or in small groups, rather than to explicitly teach specific skills and knowledge.

What Do Teachers Teach?

The Manhattan Institute report, “What Do Teachers Teach?” presents the results of a survey of the classroom methods and teaching philosophies of more than 1,200 American fourth- and eighth-grade teachers. The report was written by Christopher Barnes of the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut.

The study results suggest education school professors instilled their preference for child-centered methods in their students, who now are the nation’s teachers. More than half of the teachers surveyed described their philosophy as student-directed rather than teacher-directed. Twice as many teachers preferred cooperative learning in small groups as preferred whole-group instruction.

Fewer than 15 percent of the teachers surveyed believed it was most important to teach students “specific information and skills.” More than 70 percent said what is most important for students is “learning how to learn,” a philosophy that generally emphasizes “critical thinking skills” and downplays the teaching of facts.


Teachers in the two surveys differ markedly with regard to their expectations of student mastery and effort. In the eight high-performing, high-poverty schools in the PRI report, high expectations are the norm. For example, Principal Debbie Tate of Payne Elementary School believes all students can meet standards.

“They may be rigorous standards but then there’s a way of breaking them down so they can be understood, especially by the English language learner,” she notes.

Dr. Norma Baker, principal of Hudnall Elementary School, is committed to having all students meet benchmarks even if they need extra help to do so. “It’s all about expectations,” she says.

“If you set high expectations for children and communicate that to them, then they in turn will work hard to meet those expectations,” Baker explains. “You have to come with that kind of mindset.”

The general mindset among teachers in the Manhattan Institute survey is somewhat different:

  • Only one-quarter of surveyed teachers place the greatest emphasis on accuracy of students’ answers.
  • Only a minority of teachers regularly assigns vocabulary words and written exercises.
  • Fewer than half of fourth-grade teachers expect students to always spell correctly.
  • Nearly 60 percent of fourth-grade teachers do not base final grades on a “single, class-wide standard,” but instead base grades on individual abilities.
  • Seventy percent of eighth-grade teachers permit the use of calculators.

“Teachers do not seem to have terribly high expectations for their pupils when it comes to how much and how well they will end up learning,” noted Fordham Foundation President Finn.

Krista Kafer is senior policy analyst for education at The Heritage Foundation. Her email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The September 2002 Pacific Research Institute report, “They Have Overcome: High-poverty, High-performing Schools in California,” authored by Lance T. Izumi in collaboration with K. Gwynne Coburn and Matt Cox, is available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for document #10733.

The September 2002 Manhattan Institute Civic Report by Christopher Barnes, “What Do Teachers Teach? A Survey of America’s Fourth and Eighth Grade Teachers,” is also available through PolicyBot. Search for document 10730.

Seigfried E. Engelmann describes the Direct Instruction approach in a June 2001 interview with School Reform News, “If the Children Aren’t Learning,” located at http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=984.