Direct Instruction Produces Large Gains in Learning, Kenya Edition

In an important new paper, Can Education be Standardized? Evidence from Kenya, Guthrie Gray-Lobe, Anthony Keats, Michael Kremer, Isaac Mbiti and Owen Ozier evaluate Bridge International schools using a large randomized experiment. Twenty five thousand Kenyan students applied for 10,000 scholarships to Bridge International and the scholarships were given out by lottery.

Kenyan pupils who won a lottery for two-year scholarships to attend schools employing a highly-structured and standardized approach to pedagogy and school management learned more than students who applied for, but did not win, scholarships.

After being enrolled at these schools for two years, primary-school pupils gained approximately the equivalent of 0.89 extra years of schooling (0.81 standard deviations), while in pre-primary grades, pupils gained the equivalent of 1.48 additional years of schooling (1.35 standard deviations).

Who are Bridge International Academies? - YouTubeThese are very large gains. Put simply, children in the Bridge programs learnt approximately three years worth of material in just two years! Now, I know what you are thinking. We have all seen examples of high-quality, expensive educational interventions that don’t scale–that was the point of my post Heroes are Not Replicable and see also my recent discussion of the Perry Preschool project–but it’s important to understand the backstory of the Bridge study. Bridge Academy uses Direct Instruction and Direct Instruction scales! We know this from hundreds of studies. In 2018 I wrote (no indent):

What if I told you that there is a method of education which significantly raises achievement, has been shown to work for students of a wide range of abilities, races, and socio-economic levels and has been shown to be superior to other methods of instruction in hundreds of tests?….I am reminded of this by the just-published, The Effectiveness of Direct Instruction Curricula: A Meta-Analysis of a Half Century of Research which, based on an analysis of 328 studies using 413 study designs examining outcomes in reading, math, language, other academic subjects, and affective measures (such as self-esteem), concludes:

…Our results support earlier reviews of the DI effectiveness literature. The estimated effects were consistently positive. Most estimates would be considered medium to large using the criteria generally used in the psychological literature and substantially larger than the criterion of .25 typically used in education research (Tallmadge, 1977). Using the criteria recently suggested by Lipsey et al. (2012), 6 of the 10 baseline estimates and 8 of the 10 adjusted estimates in the reduced models would be considered huge. All but one of the remaining six estimates would be considered large. Only 1 of the 20 estimates, although positive, might be seen as educationally insignificant.

…The strong positive results were similar across the 50 years of data; in articles, dissertations, and gray literature; across different types of research designs, assessments, outcome measures, and methods of calculating effects; across different types of samples and locales, student poverty status, race-ethnicity, at-risk status, and grade; across subjects and programs; after the intervention ceased; with researchers or teachers delivering the intervention; with experimental or usual comparison programs; and when other analytic methods, a broader sample, or other control variables were used.

Indeed, in 2015 I pointed to Bridge International as an important, large, and growing set of schools that use Direct Instruction to create low-cost, high quality private schools in the developing world. The Bridge schools, which have been backed by Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, have been controversial which is one reason the Kenyan results are important.

One source of controversy is that Bridge teachers have less formal education and training than public school teachers. But Brdige teachers need less formal education because they are following a script and are closely monitored. DI isn’t designed for heroes, it’s designed for ordinary mortals motivated by ordinary incentives.

School heads are trained to observe teachers twice daily, recording information on adherence to the detailed teaching plans and interaction with pupils. School heads are given their own detailed scripts for teacher observation, including guidance for preparing for the observation, what teacher behaviors to watch for while observing, and how to provide feedback. School heads are instructed to additionally conduct a 15 minute follow up on the same day to check whether teachers incorporated the feedback and enter their scores through a digital system. The presence of the scripts thus transforms and simplifies the task of classroom observation and provision of feedback to teachers. Bridge also standardizes a range of other processes from school construction to financial management.

Teachers are observed twice daily! The model is thus education as a factory with extensive quality control–which is why teachers don’t like DI–but standardization, scale, and factory production make civilization possible. How many bespoke products do you buy? The idea that education should be bespoke gets things entirely backward because that means that you can’t apply what you learn about what works at scale–Heroes are Not Replicable–and thus you don’t get the benefits of refinement, evolution, and continuous improvement that the factory model provides. I quoted Ian Ayres in 2007:

“The education establishment is wedded to its pet theories regardless of what the evidence says.”  As a result they have fought it tooth and nail so that “Direct Instruction, the oldest and most validated program, has captured only a little more than 1 percent of the grade-school market.”

Direct Instruction is evidence-based instruction that is formalized, codified, and implemented at scale. There is a big opportunity in the developing world to apply the lessons of Direct Instruction and accelerate achievement. Many schools in the developed world would also be improved by DI methods.

Addendum 1: The research brief to the paper, from which I have quoted, is a short but very good introduction to the results of the paper and also to Direct Instruction more generally.

Addendum 2: A surprising number of people over the years have thanked me for recommending DI co-founder Siegfried Engelmann’s Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.

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