Starting in the late 1960s, Siegfried Engelmann led a government-sponsored investigation, Project Follow Through, that compared nine teaching methods and tracked their results in more than 75,000 children from kindergarten through third grade. It found that the Direct Instruction (DI) method of teaching reading was vastly more effective than any of the others for (drum roll, please) poor kids, including black ones.
This is true as far as it goes, but only part of the story: The results from PFT were a bit more conclusive than WcWhorter lets on. Here's how Zig describes the results in chapter 5 of his last book.
The evaluation had three categories: basic skills, cognitive (higher-order thinking) skills, and affective responses.
The basic skills consisted of those things that could be taught by rote—spelling, word identification, math facts and computation, punctuation, capitalization, and word usage. DI was first of all sponsors in basic skills...Only two other sponsors had a positive average. The remaining models scored deep in the negative numbers, which means they were soundly outperformed by [the control group]
DI was not expected to outperform the other models on “cognitive” skills, which require higher-order thinking, or on measures of “responsibility.” Cognitive skills were assumed to be those that could not be presented as rote, but required some form of process or “scaffolding” of one skill on another to draw a conclusion or figure out the answer. In reading, children were tested on main ideas, word meaning based on context, and inferences. Math problem solving and math concepts evaluated children’s higher-order skills in math.
Not only was the DI model number one on these cognitive skills; it was the only model that had positive scores for all three higher-order categories: reading, math concepts and math problem solving. DI had a higher average score on the cognitive skills than it did for the basic skills...
Not only were we first in adjusted scores and first in percentile scores for basic skills, cognitive skills, and perceptions children had of themselves, we were first in spelling, first with sites that had a Headstart preschool, first in sites that started in K, and first in sites that started in grade one. Our third-graders who went through only three years (grades 1-3) were, on average, over a year ahead of children in other models who went through four years—grades K-3. We were first with Native Americans, first with non-English speakers, first in rural areas, first in urban areas, first with whites, first with blacks, first with the lowest disadvantaged children and first with high performers.
You see the problem? DI wasn't just effective with poor/black students; it's effective with all students. In the long run this success is going to militate against eliminating achievement gaps, though a relative long-term reduction might be possible.
DI isn't exactly complicated: Students are taught to sound out words rather than told to get the hang of recognizing words whole, and they are taught according to scripted drills that emphasize repetition and frequent student participation
On a superficial level DI does not appear to be complicated. But, DI requires a lot more than "sounding out words" and "scripted drills" to work effectively. These are superficial features of DI. SOmeone with a deep understanding of DI would focus on other features, such as mastery learning.
Matt Yglesias basically agreees with McWhorter's somewhat superficial analysis but cautions:
A word of caution I would offer is that the rhetoric in the column seems, in my view, to oversell this fix. I think it’s important not to set people up to believe that some proposed change is a silver bullet when that just sets the stage for a potential future backlash. Based on what we know, it would be much better in general—and especially for poor kids—to do more direct instruction.
Yglesias is also confused. Like, McWhorter he identifies phonics as the primary component for DI's success. This isn't accurate. Moreover, McWhorter is talking about Direct Instruction. Yglesias is talking about direct instruction; the two are not the same. McWhorter is overselling DI a bit. He's also underselling it as well. So, Yglesias's concerns are only partially probative here. Yglesias's concern of a "potential future backlash appears to be based on the following:
Even the most egalitarian countries have statistically meaningful achievement gaps, and the United States is far from being the most egalitarian country.
Believing that egalitarian policies, or lack thereof, are somehow the cause of achievement gaps is a good example of what you get when you use correlational studies without understanding the underlying issues. Just because poverty and educational achievement are correlated and egalitarian policies and achievement are also correlated, does not mean that egalitarian polcies cause increased student ahcievement. See La Griffe's latest analysis to see why this is not so.
Yglesias does appear to stumble upon the right answer in the end though:
There’s no “solution” to the general existence of achievement gaps. There are, rather, policies that can be effective in narrowing them and this is one.
Even though the rest of his comment is wrong. Funny how that works sometimes.