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Project Follow Through

The Biggest Educational Study Ever

One large study that parents really should know about is Project Follow Through, completed in the 1970s. This was the largest educational study ever done, costing over $600 million, and covering 79,000 children in 180 communities. This project examined a variety of programs and educational philosophies to learn how to improve education of disadvantaged children in grades K-3. (It was launched in response to the observation that Head Start children were losing the advantages from Head Start by third grade.) Desired positive outcomes included basic skills, cognitive skills ("higher order thinking") and affective gains (self-esteem). Multiple programs were implemented over a 5-year period and the results were analyzed by the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) and Abt Associates (Cambridge, MA). The various programs studied could be grouped into the three classes described above (Basic Skills, Cognitive-Conceptual, Affective-Cognitive).

The program that gave the best results in general was true Direct Instruction, a subset of Basic Skills. The other program types, which closely resemble today's educational strategies (having labels like "holistic," "student-centered learning," "learning-to-learn," "active learning," "cooperative education," and "whole language") were inferior. Students receiving Direct Instruction did better than those in all other programs when tested in reading, arithmetic, spelling, and language. But what about "higher-order thinking" and self-esteem? Contrary to common assumptions, Direct Instruction improved cognitive skills dramatically relative to the control groups and also showed the highest improvement in self-esteem scores compared to control groups. Students in the Open Education Center program, where self-esteem was the primary goal, scored LOWER than control groups in that area! As Dr. Jones puts it, "The inescapable conclusion of Project Follow Through is that kids enrolled in educational programs, which have well-defined academic objectives, will enjoy greater achievement in basic skills, thinking skills, and self-esteem. Self-esteem in fact appears to derive from pride in becoming competent in the important academic skills."

Dr. Jones goes on to explore the lamentable reaction of many educators who found their ideologies undercut by the hard data. Rather than change, many simply ignored the study and continued as before. (A more recent example of this is the continued use of whole language reading education in schools, in spite of overwheling evidence of failure). Today, we find schools spending more and more to implement forms of "affective" and "cognitive" educational programs, while continuing to turn away from anything close to Direct Instruction. This has not resulted in improved basic skills, improved thinking, or improved self-esteem.

Jones also discusses research on the long-term effects of those who received Direct Instruction in Project Follow Through and in a separate study conducted by Gersten and Keating. Kids receiving true Direct Instruction were much more likely to graduate from high school and to be accepted into college and to show long-term gains in reading, language, and math scores.

Among the multiple references Jones provides for Project Follow Through, I'll list three:

  • Stebbins, L.B., R.G. St. Pierre, E.C. Proper, R.B. Anderson, and T.R. Cerva. Education as Experimentation: A Planned Variation Model, Volume IV-A, An Evaluation of Follow Through. Abt Associates, Cambridge, MA, 1977.

  • Bock, G., L.B. Stebbins, and E.C. Proper. Education as Experimentation: A Planned Variation Model, Volume IV-B, Effects of Follow Through Models, Abt Associates, Cambridge, MA, 1977. [Also issued by U.S. Office of Education as National Evaluation: Detailed Effects Volume II-B of the Follow Through Planned Variation Experiment Series.]

  • Meyer, L.A. Long-term academic effects of the Direct Instruction project follow through. Elementary School Journal. 84: 380-304 (1984).


The following sources have been recommended as studies showing the long-term benefits of Direct Instruction on a child:

  • Gersten, R., & Keating, T (1987). Long-Term Benefits from Direct Instruction. Educational Leadership, 44(6), 28-29.

  • Gersten, R., Keating, T., & Becker, W. (1988). The Continued Impact of the Direct Instruction Model: Longitudinal Studies of Follow Through Students. Education and Treatment of Children, 11(4), 318-327.

  • Gary Adams, Project Follow Through and Beyond, in Effective School Practices, Volume 15, No. 1, Winter, 1995-6 Theme: What Was That Project Follow Through? This is also available at


Research on Direct Instruction by Gary Adams and Siegfried Engelmann. Available for $24.95 + $4 shipping and handling through Educational Achievement Systems, 319 Nickerson St. - Suite 112, Seattle, WA 98109. (Did you know that the average percentile score of students in DI reading is .72 percentile and .87 in DI math? Not bad!)

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