Does direct instruction in the early years cause teenage criminal behaviour?

I recently read a piece in Psychology Today that argues that early academic training causes long term harm:

I find such an argument hard to take. The causal mechanism that is suggested is that students who experience direct instruction have less time to discovery-learn social skills. However, this seems highly implausible. Even in DI schools, there is still a great deal of non-DI time. And how could any effect persist into adolescence? It would need to be one of the strongest causal relationships identified in education.

The bulk of the evidence in the article relates to the High/Scope research of David Weikart and colleagues. This jogged a memory. I could remember a piece by Carl Bereiter that criticised the methodology of one of the High Scope studies:

Further investigation revealed a critique of the High/Scope research by Martin Kozloff, originally posted on the DI Listserve. I reproduce this in full below (with permission):

“There are about half a dozen articles in the series written by Schweinhart and Weikart, in which they claim to compare (and apparently believe that they demonstrate the superiority of) their High/Scope pre-school curriculum with (1) a preschool that used Direct Instruction in reading and language for about an hour a day for one year, and (2) a traditional nursery school. It does not take a heavy background in research methodology to see what is wrong with the Schweinhart and Weikart studies. All it takes is reading their articles and applying a bit of commonsense. (See Weikart, D. [1988]. A perspective in High/Scope’s early education research. Early Child Development and Care, 33, 29-44; Schweinhart, L. & Weikart, D. [1997]. The High/Scope curriculum comparison study. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 12, 117-143.)

In a nutshell, they claim that: (1) approximately 20 years after the children went to the three preschools; (2) with only about one-third of the original children (now adults) available for further study; (3) with little idea where the other two-thirds were; and (4) with important differences in the remaining samples (notably, far more of the adults who had been in the Direct Instruction preschool had been reared by single, working mothers whose income was about half that of households in the High/Scope group (socializing conditions [e.g., economic disadvantage, inadequate supervision and discipline] that sociological research—e.g., of Marvin Wolfgang and Gerald Patterson—has shown to be predisposing factors to juvenile delinquency); even so, (5) an hour a day of Direct Instruction is said by Schweinhart and Weikart to have caused anti-social behavior in the DI kids one and two decades later.

Let us ignore the fact that instead of reporting the actual rates of antisocial behavior, Schweinhart and Weikart generally report percentages; e.g., that there was allegedly twice as much antisocial behavior among prior DI kids twenty years later. Let us also ignore the fact that these percentage differences actually amount to differences in the activities of only one or two persons. What is most telling, and just plain bizarre, is that these two writers barely entertain the possibility that: (1) a dozen years of school experience; (2) area of residence; (3) family background; (4) the influence of gangs; and (5) differential economic opportunity, had anything to do with adolescent development and adult behavior. But, Weikart and Schweinhart are experts in early childhood. Therefore, they may not know that experiences after preschool affect adolescent development and adult behavior.

If one wanted to use an ad hominem argument, the Schweinhart and Weikart studies certainly provide the opportunity. First, they assert—again and again–that their curriculum is the superior one. Indeed, the number of times they make this claim gives their articles the ring of an advertising campaign for hair care products. Second, the early results of project Follow Through (with, I believe, 9000 children assigned to nine early childhood curricula) showed that disadvantaged children who received Direct Instruction went from the 20th to about the 50th percentile on the Metropolitan Achievement Test. Children who received the High/Scope curriculum did not do as well. They fell from the 20th percentile to the 11th. Maybe that is the animus for Schweinhart and Weikart’s claim. But we won’t speculate.”

Kozloff, M. (2011). DI creates felons, but literate ones. Contribution to the DI Listserve, University of Oregon, 31 December, 2011.


8 Comments on “Does direct instruction in the early years cause teenage criminal behaviour?”

  1. heatherfblog says:

    As you know I am very interested in this research and it is fascinating that despite a much larger study finding no effect that this really dodgy High Scope study is so very influential. You’ll find it referenced quite uncritically again and again. Most recently I was researching the evidence in favour of character education and found this research was one of the Central planks of evidence in Heckman’s enormously influential paper that endorses the success of character dducation. Heckman’s paper was then used extensively by the OECD in their own paper on the subject. I felt at that the baleful influence of this dodgy research, used to justify so many questionable practices, needed to be exposed.

  2. The shoddy quality of what can be accepted as valid research in the field of education continues to astound. Thanks for drawing attention to this.

  3. […] 20 years later? However, I then came across the claim in numerous respectable publications. Greg Ashman  drew my attention to another in Psychology Today recently. Initially I felt I had to accept the […]

  4. […] So, if there is a lack of evidence then what justification is there for people to continue to support constructivist approaches? One example can be seen to be the reaction to Project Follow Through and goes something like this, “OK so Direct Instruction may be good for rote memorisation of basic facts but our kind of instruction does more intangible things over a greater period of time that cannot be measured”. Or, “Direct Instruction causes criminality”. Neither of these is true (see here and here). […]

  5. […] evidence for DI programmes and the almost visceral hatred they arouse in their critics. There are dodgy analyses that attempt to substantiate the extraordinary claim that participation in an early y…. And then there are attempts to obscure or flatly ignore the evidence from the largest education […]

  6. […] The flaws in the argument: Despite being widely repeated as fact, the research behind this argument has been largely debunked. […]

  7. […] From time-to-time, someone will claim that any kind of formal instruction in preschool is damaging for children. One such article has been doing the rounds since 2015 and seems to be quite popular on Twitter. The evidence it draws upon comes largely from a set of studies based upon the High/Scope preschool curriculum. Look out for these studies because they are often at the root of such claims and, in my view, they are deeply flawed. […]

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