The biggest secret in education
PFT was initiated by President Lyndon Johnson as part of his "war on poverty", and was designed to see how educators could sustain and build on the advances made by young children in Head Start programs. The program tested multiple approaches to reading instruction, and generated clear evidence as to the efficacy of some programs over others.
Sounds great, right? A large-scale, longitudinal research study that offered unambiguous and actionable results. So why doesn't anyone know about PFT - and why do we still have such a hard time teaching kids to read?
The problem is that the research outcomes contradicted the popular thinking at the time. PFT found that Direct Instruction, a scripted approach focusing on synthetic phonics, blew other reading instruction models (predominately constructivist models - whole language, etc.) out of the water. But because that approach was/is unpopular among many people in the education establishment (the argument I've heard is that it limits the freedom and discretion of the teacher), it has been ignored, and attempts have been made to discredit the results.
I'm not an education researcher, so I don't intend to dive into a comparison of the various approaches or the outcomes of this massive initiative. But I would suggest to anyone interested in education reform that they read up on Project Follow Through (try here, here, here, and here), and ask yourselves two questions: why the results of this project were buried and ignored, and what you can learn from that episode when you think about reforming education.