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Part III: Behind 'The Knowledge Gap.' Is School Curriculum To Blame?

(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

Series: Closing the Achievement Gap | Take Our Survey

With Meghna Chakrabarti

The latest in our series on the achievement gap. Could the problem be the nation’s focus on teaching skills rather than actual knowledge?


Natalie Wexler, author of “The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System – And How to Fix It.” (@natwexler)

Sarah Webb, fifth and eighth grade English Langue Learner teacher for the Mad River Local School District outside of Dayton, Ohio. She was featured in “The Knowledge Gap.” Piloted “Wit and Wisdom,” a content-based curriculum, when she was a fourth grade teacher. She is now helping to implement it districtwide.

Interview Highlights

What does a knowledge-rich classroom look like?

Natalie Wexler: “The classroom I followed through a school year that was doing one of these knowledge-rich, content-focused curricula, that was actually a second grade classroom, but they had been doing this curriculum since kindergarten. For example, they were learning about the War of 1812, which is a subject a lot of American adults don’t really know much about. But but these kids had the background knowledge to really grapple with the issues. They had studied the colonial era in kindergarten, and European exploration before that. And they had studied the Revolutionary War. And so they really understood the issues in the War of 1812. And they were totally fascinated by it. They were on the edge of their seats waiting to find out what was going to happen. And they were able to make connections between the things that had happened in the American Revolutionary War, for example, and what they were learning about the War of 1812. So they were both actually really enjoying what they were learning about history and also acquiring knowledge that would stand them in very good stead in years to come.”

How is that any different than what goes on in other classrooms?

Wexler: “I thought I knew a lot about education, six, seven years ago, and I assumed elementary schools were actually trying to build that kind of knowledge and teach kids substance. But what I stumbled across was the fact that they’re really not. They increasingly are focusing on reading, largely thanks to the advent of high-stakes reading tests. And I should be clear there are two components to reading. There’s the decoding part — matching sounds to letters and phonics and all that. And that really is a set of skills, but a lot of the time that’s spent on reading is spent on reading comprehension. And that is also taught as though it were a set of skills, like finding the main idea, making inferences, there’s a whole bunch of them. And then usually there’ll be a skill of the week, like this week we’re working on comparing and contrasting or determining the author’s purpose, and a teacher will choose a book to use — not for its content, but for how well it’s suited to demonstrating that skill.”

Why is that such a problem? Aren’t those important skills to learn?

Wexler: “I mean, it certainly sounds good. But these are not skills like riding a bike, or playing tennis, or even learning to decode words — where you just keep practicing them, they can be taught directly, you keep practicing them and you get better and it doesn’t really matter what the context is. Something like finding the main idea isn’t a skill like that. Cognitive scientists have now known this for decades — it’s really dependent on how much background knowledge and vocabulary the reader has relating to the topic. If I know a lot about baseball, I might have no trouble finding the main idea of a newspaper article about a baseball game. But if I don’t know anything about baseball, I’m gonna be in trouble. I have to struggle a lot to figure out what it’s all about. That’s true with things like molecular biology — if you don’t have a background in that, I think that’s pretty obvious.

“But I think what’s less obvious to many educated adults or adults in general is how much some kids don’t know, how much background knowledge and vocabulary they lack about the world. And that’s not true of all kids. Kids who come from better-educated families, who tend to be, in our society, wealthier families, they pick up a lot of knowledge and vocabulary of a sophisticated nature at home. But other kids who are not lucky enough to have highly educated parents really depend on school for that. And if they’re not getting it there, they are going to be falling farther and farther behind their lucky peers every year.

“We’re reinforcing existing inequities in society. We’re very well-intentioned. The intent is to help kids, and help them to do better on these tests and do better in school. But, we’ve basically been shooting ourselves in the foot for a long time.”

On the pushback against content-based curricula

1. Won’t they be too scripted? Don’t teachers want to stay away from something that is too rigid in structure?

Wexler: “There’s a lot of resistance, on the part of teachers, to scripted curricula. And you can kind of understand that — a lot of the curricula that have been out there  that have been scripted have not been that great.

But a good script can help a teacher dealing with a new curriculum for the first time. And especially if you’re asked to teach the War of 1812 to second graders, maybe you don’t know much about the War of 1812. A script or read-aloud, which is how that particular topic is conveyed, it can be very helpful in educating teachers about the content along with students. Once you’ve taught it a couple of times, then maybe you understand what kids need to get out of it. Then you can veer from the script, you can make it your own, you can introduce some more creative ways to teach it.

2. This approach is not “child-centered.” It takes the discovery and choice out of education.

Wexler: “That is a frequent trope that you hear. ‘Child-centered,’ like ‘skills,’ it really sounds good, but … it sometimes ends up trapping students, really tracking them. Because, if you, for example, say, ‘Well, let them just follow their own interests and choose what they want to study,’ what about kids who don’t know that much about the larger world? They don’t know what they might be interested in. What they need is somebody to introduce them to things like Greek mythology or the life cycle of the caterpillar and the butterfly, or just things that they don’t yet know about. You could say it’s teacher-centered and not child-centered, but I think that’s misleading to say that. We have to make sure that we are providing all kids with access to the kind of knowledge that will help them succeed in school and in life.”

3. Many — but, of course, not all — people have access to the internet, and with it a whole universe of knowledge. For kids to grow up in that world, they need to be taught skills in school, so they can handle that kind of access to information responsibly.

Wexler: “That is also a frequent argument. It’s not as new as you might think. ‘You can just look it up’ predated the ‘just Google it’ era. But there were several problems with that. A cognitive psychologist named Daniel Willingham has been very good at responding to that argument.

“The main thing is that if you have to stop every few words or sentences to look something up, it’s very burdensome on your cognitive abilities. You lose the train of thought, and some studies have shown that even if you’re unfamiliar with as little as 2% of the words in a passage, it’s going to become more difficult for you to get the meaning from it. So looking things up is really not a great way to boost anyone’s comprehension. Plus, when you look things up, you might not understand the definition if you don’t have enough background knowledge. You might get the wrong definition or the wrong information, and not have enough knowledge to be able to evaluate reliably what you’re reading.”

4. The moment you start talking about the centrality of particular kinds of content or particular kinds of knowledge, don’t you walk into a political minefield?

Wexler: “That again is an argument I’ve frequently heard, and no, not really. I mean, yes, there have been political battles over curriculum, but we specify content at the high school level. We’ve managed to do that. It’s really the elementary level where there is content that’s rarely specified. And if we can do it at the high-school level why not do it at the elementary level, where, if you start teaching kids about history and science, they’ll have a fighting chance of understanding what you’re trying to teach them when they get to high school? And, as I mentioned, I think there are now curricula — elementary literacy curricula — that are out there, like the ones that have been mentioned and and others, that have been adopted by an increasing number of school districts, and there haven’t been, for the most part, political battles over those curricula. So I don’t think it’s as big an issue as a lot of people assume. And even if there are some political disagreements that emerge, we can’t let that be an excuse or a reason for keeping access to knowledge from the kids who need it the most.”

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “The Knowledge Gap” by Natalie Wexler

On a sunny November morning, Gaby Arredondo is trying to initiate twenty first-graders into the mysteries of reading.

Today’s particular mystery is captions. Ms. Arredondo recently gave a test that asked her students to identify a caption, and—even though she had spent fifteen minutes teaching the concept—many chose the title of the passage instead. Her goal today is to show her students that what makes something a caption isn’t where it appears on the page or what it looks like but what it does: it’s a label that describes a picture.

“What is a caption?” Ms. Arredondo begins brightly to the five students gathered before her at a semicircular table. As she speaks, she writes caption on a whiteboard next to her chair. No one answers. Ms. Arredondo writes a second word: label.

“It’s a label,” volunteers one girl.

“What kind of a label?” Ms. Arredondo prods.

A boy chimes in: “It’s a label that describes things.”

“What kinds of things? Does it tell us the author or the title?”

“It tells us the author and the title,” the boy repeats dutifully.

“No,” Ms. Arredondo says. “It tells us about the picture.”

She shows them a photo from a book called Mothers, which has the words daughters, mother, and son superimposed in the appropriate spots. “So, what is a caption?”

“Words?” a girl named Nevaeh ventures.

As Ms. Arredondo goes through other books with subsequent small groups, the children pepper her with questions about the pictures—what a shark is eating, or whether a planet is Mars or the moon. She deflects them. The point of this lesson isn’t to learn about sharks or planets. It’s to learn about captions.

In a first-grade classroom in another school, teacher Adrienne Williams is about to read aloud a book on mummies. But first, she asks the kids what they already know about the subject—or what they think they know.

“They chase you!” says one.

“They don’t exist.”

“They walk like they’re crazy!”

“They’re wrapped in paper.”

“They kidnap you.”

“You all have a lot of ideas about mummies,” Ms. Williams says calmly. After taking some questions (“Are they real?” “What do they do?”), she puts the book into a projector so the kids can follow along.

“Eww!” they chorus delightedly, as the screen reveals a photograph of a mummy with its hands pressed to its cheeks, its teeth fixed in a ghoulish smile.

The children are rapt as Ms. Williams reads about how mummies are dead bodies that have been preserved, sometimes for thousands of years, and the things that scientists can tell about them: that one ancient man used hair gel, that another’s last meal was vegetable soup.

Along the way she casually points out the “text features” that, in a typical elementary classroom, would be the focus of instruction: the table of contents (“So if I want to make a mummy, what page do I go to? . . . Yes, page 18, ‘How to Make a Mummy’ ”), and a text box that contains a definition of bacteria (“You already know about bacteria after studying germs,” she reminds them). There’s a picture of a sarcophagus. “We’re going to learn that word,” she says.

Both Ms. Williams and Ms. Arredondo were teaching at schools serving low-income populations on a first-come, first-served basis. Both were considered effective and well-trained teachers. Ms. Williams is naturally gifted, but the fact that her lesson was so much meatier and more engaging was largely a matter of luck: her school happened to be using a curriculum that emphasized building knowledge. A few years before, Ms. Williams’ school had used the kind of curriculum used by Ms. Arredondo—which is the norm—and she could see that her students weren’t particularly engaged. “It was just an isolated set of skills,” she says. “There was no bigger context.”

The theory that has shaped the American approach to elementary education goes like this: Reading comprehension is a set of skills that can be taught completely disconnected from content. Teach children to identify captions in a simple text—or find the main idea, or make inferences, or any one of a number of other skills—and eventually they’ll be able to grasp the meaning of any text put in front of them.

But cognitive scientists have known for decades that the most important factor in comprehension isn’t a set of generally applicable skills; it’s how much background knowledge the reader has about the topic. If you don’t have enough knowledge and vocabulary to understand the text, no amount of “skills” practice will help. Given the lack of attention to building knowledge in school, the system ends up further privileging the kids who are already privileged—those who have highly educated parents and are more likely to pick up sophisticated knowledge and vocabulary at home.

Another widespread belief among educators is that history and non-hands-on science are inappropriate for young children. That, too, is not supported by the evidence—including the anecdotal evidence from Ms. Williams’ classroom. The fact is, history is a series of stories. And kids love stories. The same is true for science topics that don’t lend themselves to hands-on activities. It’s ironic that truly abstract concepts like captions are considered appropriate for six-year-olds, but informational tales about history, science, and the arts are not.

When young children are introduced to history and science in concrete and understandable ways, chances are they’ll be far better equipped to reengage with those topics with more nuance later on. At the same time, teaching disconnected comprehension skills boosts neither comprehension nor reading scores. It’s just empty calories. In effect, kids are clamoring for broccoli and spinach while adults insist on a steady diet of donuts.

The good news is that a growing number of elementary schools, like the one where Ms. Williams taught, are recognizing that it’s not only okay to focus on building children’s knowledge, it’s vital to their chances of success. And that kids love it.

Reprinted from THE KNOWLEDGE GAP: The hidden cause of America’s broken education system–and how to fix it by arrangement with Avery, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2019, Natalie Wexler.

New York Times: “Opinion: Why Are We Still Teaching Reading the Wrong Way?” — “Our children aren’t being taught to read in ways that line up with what scientists have discovered about how people actually learn.

“It’s a problem that has been hiding in plain sight for decades. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more than six in 10 fourth graders aren’t proficient readers. It has been this way since testing began. A third of kids can’t read at a basic level.

“How do we know that a big part of the problem is how children are being taught? Because reading researchers have done studies in classrooms and clinics, and they’ve shown over and over that virtually all kids can learn to read — if they’re taught with approaches that use what scientists have discovered about how the brain does the work of reading. But many teachers don’t know this science.

“What have scientists figured out? First of all, while learning to talk is a natural process that occurs when children are surrounded by spoken language, learning to read is not. To become readers, kids need to learn how the words they know how to say connect to print on the page. They need explicit, systematic phonics instruction. There are hundreds of studies that back this up.”

Education Next: “The Lost Children of E.D. Hirsch” — “The most important point raised in Natalie Wexler’s new book The Knowledge Gap is nearly an afterthought. It’s in the book’s epilogue. After a compelling, book-length argument in favor of offering a knowledge-rich education to every child and documenting our frustrating lack of progress in doing so—to raise reading achievement, promote justice, even, she suggests, to end school segregation—the author makes a surprising observation.

“‘I’d love to point to a school district, or even a single school, and say: This is how it should be done,’ Wexler writes. ‘Unfortunately, I have yet to see an American school that consistently combines a focus on content with an instructional method that fully exploits the potential of writing to build knowledge and critical thinking abilities for every child.’

“That is one hell of an indictment of American education, and to Wexler’s credit, a brave one, since arguably it calls into question the mission of her thoroughly reported and briskly readable book. On the one hand, the case for content cannot be made too often or too emphatically, and Wexler does it well. By setting so much of the book in actual classrooms among real teachers and children she does E.D. Hirsch, Jr. better than Hirsch himself. However, it is telling—and a little depressing—that more that 30 years after Hirsch burst nearly by accident onto best-seller lists with Cultural Literacy, the urtext in the knowledge-rich schooling canon, Wexler cannot name a single school or district doing it right. Thus The Knowledge Gap cannot be viewed as a wake up call for American education. The alarm has been ringing for more than three decades. We have hit the snooze bar and rolled over. And that’s, well…alarming.”

Grace Tatter produced this hour for broadcast.

Series: Closing the Achievement Gap | Take Our Survey

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