By Bruce Deitrick Price
Genuine rigorous testing of educational ideas is rare in America. Why? Because practical testing usually goes against what the professors want to do. Their impractical ideas don’t perform well in the real world.
For example, Operation Follow-Through was the biggest, most systematic testing in American education, continuing for ten years, 1967 to 1977. This research showed absolutely that common sense, often called Direct Instruction, works best. Quite simply, that’s where a teacher teaches, and students learn. Honest educators would say, okay, that’s what works best. Let’s use it.
Our educators said no such thing, which is shocking. After all, Follow-Through was a government project. It should have been conducted in an honorable way. But the professors in charge reneged on their promise that the method that won the ten-year competition would be implemented across the country. Education professors further launched a nasty campaign defaming Direct Instruction and its creator, Siegfried Engelmann (1931–2019).
The chart accompanying this article should be studied by everybody interested in fostering better schools and more efficient classrooms. You’ll see there were nine groups of experts, each trying to prove the superiority of his favored method. (If helpful, use reading glasses or a magnifying glass. God is in the small print.)
Engelmann and Direct Instruction, described in the first column on the left, won overwhelmingly. The color bars (dark blue, sky blue, and deep red) show results in three categories: basic academic skills, problem-solving skills, self-esteem. You can see at a glance that Direct Instruction was far superior to the others, which in many cases underperformed relative to traditional methods by great margins.
Engelmann’s competitors emphasize behavior analytics, self-esteem, cognitive curricula, problem-solving, long-term retention, and almost anything but whether children are learning knowledge. For example, the sponsors of the Tucson Early Education Model explain that “there is relatively less emphasis on which items are taught and on the transmission of specific content, and more emphasis on ‘learning to learn.'” It was safe to predict that students learning to learn would not learn very much.
The overall pattern is clear. The methods that might commonly be called Progressive or Modern are failures. It’s as if these educators wanted to perfect methods sure not to work. Don’t underestimate their subversive tendencies. They had already put sight-words in public schools to defeat phonics; in 1962, these people had introduced New Math as a way to keep children from learning arithmetic (both conclusions based on this writer’s research). So we can sense they thought they were on a roll, and all they had to do was promote anything but Direct Instruction. Unfortunately for their takeover plans, Engelmann’s ideas prevailed by margins too great to be ignored.
When the competition ended, the professors submitted after-action reports. Basically, they tried hard to discredit Engelmann’s victory. The most vocal critique was by Professor House et al. (1978). Their article — along with several rebuttals from the original evaluation team and other researchers — was published by the Harvard Educational Review in 1978. The authors were extremely dissatisfied with the pronouncement of the evaluators that the basic skills models (i.e., Engelmann) outperformed the other models. The authors complained that basic skills are decidedly just that — basic. The authors imply that basic skills are only taught through “rote methods” — a pejorative term.
Engelmann has identified the impasse here. “Fundamentally,” he commented, “these people are looking for magic.” They want children to learn through talk and projects, not through systematic study, immersion in academics, or memorization.
Progressive ideas tend to be soft and abstract; it’s as if a class of teenagers spent a year discussing their feelings about tennis but never played tennis. But what works, according to Engelmann, is learning the simplest facts and then building on them. Wikipedia notes, “According to the program sponsors, anything presumed to be learned by students must first be taught by the teacher.” That requirement is both radical and witty. Progressives like to suppose that children pick up knowledge from the air or drinking water — that is, magically. That’s why there is now so little emphasis on spelling, vocabulary, and grammar — that is, the basics.
John Dewey was the grandfather of most Progressive ideas. He seemed to believe that children are delicate and should not be forced or disciplined. He said before 1900 that he didn’t want punishment in his ideal school. Decades later, the Summerhill school in England proposed that children should be allowed to study whatever they want each day. No rules. (Bank Street Model, the middle one on the chart, promotes the same philosophy.) Hippie communes tend to like this thinking. It might work for mature, self-directed children. But even they are likely to end up with a very uneven education. It’s the job of parents and teachers to suggest what should be primary, secondary, and lower, based on the experience of human civilization over thousands of years.
Siegfried Englemann’s educational philosophy is simple genius. Teach facts in an orderly, systematic way. As the years go by, your students will become educated people. No magic required. Just common sense.
The U.S. has had three giants in education: John Saxon in the teaching of math, Rudolf Flesch in the teaching of reading, and Siegfried Engelmann in routine instruction across all subjects. The fascinating pattern throughout K–12 is that the Education Establishment expends vast energy and budgets trying to con Americans into accepting what is clearly inferior.