Closing the knowledge gap

Why schools are failing to teach fundamental reading and comprehension skills—and how to change it
By: | Issue: October, 2019
September 9, 2019

Who is to blame for students’ low reading and comprehension abilities? Education writer Natalie Wexler believes the root problem is not—as many claim—bad teachers or under-resourced schools. In The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System—and How To Fix It (Avery, 2019), Wexler shows how many schools try to teach reading without the foundational knowledge that children need to find context and meaning in what they read. These are essential ingredients that children must learn to reach understanding and to succeed—not just in school, but as productive citizens.
In her book, Wexler looks at the history and research of education to show how the gap has only widened in a world of increasing high-accountability standardized testing. But The Knowledge Gap doesn’t just focus on our educational shortcomings, it also profiles schools and teachers who realize what is missing and are working to close the gap.

When I was in elementary school, I learned reading and math, but also history, science and the arts. I don’t see that as much today. When did things change?
A lot of it has to do with testing and the emphasis on reading and math, which have become the yardstick for measuring all academic progress. Schools with low test scores felt a lot of pressure to raise those scores. With reading, the theory has been that what we really need to work on are skills, such as finding the main idea and making inferences. If students master those skills, they’ll ace the tests.

But that overlooks the fact that to understand the reading passages on the tests, students need a certain amount of background knowledge and vocabulary. And the way to help students understand what they read is to teach them about the world and about history, science and the arts—all of the things that we’ve been cutting back on.

The other part of it is the idea that it’s really not important for kids to learn much of anything in the lower grades. That idea has been around for a long time—even before high-stakes reading and math testing.

If kids pick up knowledge at home, they’re in a better position later when they get into middle school or high school and they are expected to start learning about things like history. But if they have not been exposed to the concept of history, for example, and they are introduced to it for the first time
in ninth grade, then it’s very hard to grasp historical chronology and what it’s all about.

Along those lines, I was taken aback to read psychologist Jean Piaget’s theory that history and science are “developmentally inappropriate” for young children.
I had the same reaction when I first heard that. My kids were totally interested in history when they were young.  But I kept hearing over and over: “No, no. We can’t teach this before fourth grade. It’s developmentally inappropriate.”

Science is considered OK as long as it’s hands-on science. However, it’s mostly isolated experiments, in which kids may or may not be grasping what’s going on.

But actually teaching the history of scientific discovery or anything like that is considered too abstract for kids to grasp.

The way to help students understand what they read is to teach them about the world and about history, science and the arts—all of the things that we’ve been cutting back on.

The assumption is that kids are only interested in things that relate to their own lives. But as any parent of a kid who has been fascinated by dinosaurs knows, kids can get interested in things that have nothing to do with their own lives.

But Piaget’s work has been substantially modified and qualified by later research, so it’s really not considered valid by academic cognitive psychologists. They might be interested in it as intellectual history, but in schools of education, it’s still taught as gospel.

Are schools of education part of the problem?
Yes. There’s a lot of emphasis on methods, but not so much on ensuring that prospective teachers acquire content knowledge themselves. There’s a lot of emphasis on having teacher trainees develop their own philosophies of how to teach things.

Even when it comes to teaching phonics, there’s a huge amount of scientific literature showing that the best way to teach kids to decode is through systematic instruction in phonics. But at most schools of education, that is not taught.

Teachers may be told: “Some people think phonics works, but some people think you don’t need it. And you need to decide for yourself what’s the best way for you to teach.”

You wrote: “There’s a huge gap between what scientists know about the learning process and what teachers believe.”
I want to make it clear that I’m not blaming teachers for this. And I’m not even blaming schools of education. These schools developed along a very different path than the rest of academia.

There’s a long-standing gulf and a lack of communication between schools of education in general and the rest of academia, including departments of psychology, where there are people who have devoted their lives to studying how people learn—but they don’t talk to the people at the schools of education.

Another problem is definitions. There’s confusion over what Common Core is or what teaching phonics means.
There is a lot of confusion. With phonics, for example, teachers will often think they’re using phonics to teach reading, but in fact they’re either doing it in a sort of haphazard way, or they’re also teaching kids to guess at words. That completely undermines their efforts to teach kids to sound out words because it’s easier for them to just guess, so they stop trying to sound out words.

And with Common Core, there has been a huge area of misunderstanding about what its intentions are and what it really is. People often think it’s a curriculum, but it’s not a curriculum, and it doesn’t prescribe any particular topics or texts. It doesn’t tell you what text to use; it focuses on the skill of connecting a claim to evidence in the text.

There is language in the supplemental materials for the Common Core that says, basically: Kids are not going to be able to meet these standards unless you build their knowledge through a coherent, content-focused curriculum. But that language is not in the standards themselves, so most people are not even aware of it.

There’s also confusion over the word “knowledge.” People think: “We’re teaching them to read. That’s knowledge.” But you’re talking about the foundational knowledge that makes it easier to understand and put things in context.
Right, I’m talking about content knowledge and not knowing how to sound out words, which is another kind of knowledge. But we need to teach substantive knowledge. It helps with understanding, and it helps a student absorb, retain and analyze new information since they can attach it to something relevant in their long-term memory.

You also discuss core knowledge and the Core Knowledge Foundation.
It began with E.D. Hirsch, who wrote a book called Cultural Literacy and started the Core Knowledge Foundation in the late ’80s. He was more specific about the kind of knowledge that kids should acquire—what kids would need to know to understand a newspaper or to take their place in society, exercising their rights and responsibilities as citizens.

He thought it would be nice if elementary schools set aside time for social studies or history, or science and the arts. But with the standardized testing that was going on at the time, that wasn’t happening. The foundation thought: “Well, if we don’t set aside time for these content areas, we’ll fold that material into this literacy curriculum because it is what kids need to become literate.” So they created a K-5 literacy curriculum that covers a lot of these substantive topics and really doesn’t focus much on these largely illusory comprehension skills.

I should add though, I’m not advocating that schools adopt that particular curriculum. There are several others that have been developed in the past five years or so that also focus on content. Different districts or schools may prefer one over the other for a variety of reasons.

Tim Goral is senior editor.