Friday, March 13, 2009

Not Following Through on "Follow Through"

Andrew Coulson has a post on Cato@Liberty relating to the federal Follow Through evaluation of the late 1960s and early ’70s. Coulson writes:

At a cost of over a billion dollars, [Follow Through] demonstrated that one instruction method, “Distar,” clearly outperformed 21 others. Distar was #1 not just overall, but in each of the subcategories of reading, arithmetic, spelling and language. It placed a close second in promoting advanced conceptual skills, and was even the most effective at boosting students’ self-esteem and responsibility toward their work. Nothing else came close.

So, Coulson asks, "What happened?" He points out that American public schools did not follow through on Follow Through. Distar was not widely adopted around the nation. Moreover, most of the schools that had adopted it in these early days have since abandoned it. Their performance plummeted as a consequence. "End of story," Coulson says.

Coulson contends that the reason that public schools didn't follow through on Follow Through is the absence of private enterprise, competition, and pluralism in K-12 education. In contrast, E.D. Hirsch Jr. would say that the reason is the pervasive "thought world" of Progressive education in K-12, a thought world that abhors Distar teaching methods.

(For an account of the aftermath of the Follow Through evaluation, look here. For further information on Engelmann-Becker Direct Instruction (the basis of Distar), look here.)


  1. Bill,

    To be clear, I don't disagree with Hirsch on this point. He's right that the antipathy of progressive educators to Direct Instruction explains the marginalization of that fantastically effective approach in public schools. What I'm saying is that the lack of market incentives explains the dominance of the progressivist thought world within public schooling.

    It’s one thing to foist inferior methods and materials on students when you’ve got a secure job in a government-protected monopoly. It’s an altogether different thing to try that when you’ve got boatloads of competitors who want nothing more than to lure away your students and eat your proverbial lunch.

    Where Hirsch goes wrong is to imagine that there is some way of putting in place an empirically-driven pedagogical philosophy without recourse to market freedoms and incentives.

    To ensure that educators routinely identify and adopt best practices, it is necessary to align their incentives with the interests of families. You have to make it impossible for educators to make a living unless they are successful at teaching kids. Markets are the only system that has proven capable of doing that (at least in the school systems I've studied internationally and historically).

    So the only way for _instructionists_ like Hirsch (and lately Sol Stern) to get what they want is for them to win the _incentivist_ battle. If they do that, pressure to adopt effective methods will be inexorably brought to bear on educators, giving instructionists the victory they seek.

    Trying to "fix" the current monopoly is tilting at windmills -- as the disappointing results and ultimate defunding of Reading First once again has shown, and as Follow Through and the Annenberg Challenge showed before it.

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