Education reform over the past several decades has had as a primary goal the elimination of the achievement gap. This gap refers to persistent disparities in academic outcomes between groups of students, commonly measured by standardized test scores. The fact that such gaps persist — between white students and minorities, between wealthier students and their less affluent peers — deeply challenges the American ideal of public education as an engine of social mobility. These disparities have long lent urgency to ongoing efforts to improve education in this country, and their elimination has served as a unifying goal for many of the people involved in that enterprise, including teachers, administrators, parents, and policymakers.
How then have we gone about addressing that gap? That has depended on how we have understood it. In her latest book, The Knowledge Gap, education journalist, novelist, and historian Natalie Wexler argues that what has largely been seen as a skills gap has actually been driven, as the book’s title states, by a gap in knowledge.
Since elementary school instruction has “focused on ‘learning to read’ rather than ‘reading to learn,’ educators have overlooked the fact that part of ‘learning to read’ is acquiring knowledge.” Wexler makes the case that the content-agnostic skills-based approach has exacerbated, rather than alleviated, the gap between low-income and wealthier students. As she writes, “… skipping the step of building knowledge doesn’t work. The ability to think critically — like the ability to understand what you read — can’t be taught directly and in the abstract. It’s inextricably linked to how much knowledge you have about the situation at hand.”
The Knowledge Gap is an engaging resource for education funders, district and school leaders, teachers, parents, and anyone who wants to learn about the current state of elementary school education, and reading instruction, in particular. The reader gets a front-row seat to two early elementary classrooms whose experiences Wexler weaves throughout the book.
On the first page, we meet Ms. Arredondo, a first-grade teacher valiantly trying to teach her students the concept of a caption, while their enthusiasm and curiosity are instead focused on what the pictures show — could it be the moon? Mars? something else? By contrast, Ms. Masi’s second-graders listen to her read aloud detailed texts about Buddhist enlightenment one day, and civilizations in ancient Greece on another. The students build knowledge while they are learning how to identify the main idea and organize their thoughts.
The two examples side by side bring to life the difference between a skills-focused literacy approach (e.g. identify a caption) versus a knowledge-focused model (e.g. what is enlightenment?), both used in today’s elementary schools. Vignettes such as these allow Wexler to more aptly illustrate the impact these two distinct approaches have on student learning, as well as make the research and debate behind them more interesting and accessible to readers.
What if it turns out that the best way to boost reading comprehension is not to focus on comprehension skills at all but to teach kids, as early as possible, the history and science we’ve been putting off until it’s too late?
Natalie Wexler, The Knowledge Gap
Wexler argues that the two approaches diverge by either delaying or enabling students to access complex discipline-related content. In the first approach, students learn foundational reading skills and read authentic texts limited to their own reading levels. Depending on their individual readiness, students may need to wait until they reach higher grades to access subject content, such as history or science.
In the second approach, students also learn foundational reading skills. Yet, in addition, with their teacher’s support, they access higher-level content and vocabulary that they may not yet be ready to understand independently. The book highlights one example of this method, the Core Knowledge Curriculum, in which teachers focus on building content knowledge while providing targeted skills instruction where appropriate, such as in phonics. Through phonics, students learn to decode the relationship between the letters of the alphabet and their corresponding sounds.
While either approach may seem reasonable on its face, Wexler anchors her discussion in the “abundance of research showing that background knowledge [is] the most important factor in understanding any text.” She begins with the results of a study conducted in 1987 by Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie, which aimed to determine to what extent a child’s ability to comprehend a text depended on prior knowledge of the topic. In the experiment, each student read a passage about baseball and attempted to reenact the action described in the text using a model baseball field. They found that “prior knowledge of baseball made a huge difference in students’ ability to understand the text — more of a difference than their supposed reading level.” Wexler concludes that “reading ability” in the abstract is a misleading concept, since students’ ability to comprehend any text, will depend substantially on their preexisting knowledge of the subject.
This leads to the central reflection of the book: “What if it turns out that the best way to boost reading comprehension is not to focus on comprehension skills at all but to teach kids, as early as possible, the history and science we’ve been putting off until it’s too late?”
Why does it matter so much how reading and other subjects are taught in the earliest grades of a student’s educational journey? The achievement gap, after all, attracts the most attention in later grades (though it is also discernable in earlier indicators such as kindergarten readiness). Wexler argues that it is because “... elementary school is where the real problem has been hiding, in plain sight.”
She points out that building student knowledge can’t be evaluated based on the progress of one school year; rather it’s a cumulative, multiyear effort in which the effects of the early grades may not become apparent until later years. As a result, Wexler posits that “even those who have studied the K-through-12 system as a whole have failed to notice that what seems like success in elementary school is only planting the seeds of failure in high school.”
The focus in elementary school has long been on building foundational skills in literacy and numeracy that will enable later learning. But the enormous pressure that the high-stakes accountability measures of recent decades put on schools and teachers to improve in math and reading often result in a narrowing of the elementary school curriculum, with subjects such as science and social studies receiving decreasing time and attention.
Middle-income and higher-income parents can often more easily reinforce and extend what their children learn at school by reading aloud advanced texts, participating in social and informal networks with other highly educated individuals, visiting museums, and traveling. By contrast, lower-income families tend to rely heavily on schools to help build their children’s foundational subject knowledge.
Wexler argues that this is problematic because accessing rich discipline-related texts in later grades is far too late for students from low-income backgrounds. Middle-income and higher-income parents can often more easily reinforce and extend what their children learn at school by reading aloud advanced texts, participating in social and informal networks with other highly educated individuals, visiting museums, and traveling. By contrast, lower-income families tend to rely heavily on schools to help build their children’s foundational subject knowledge. In her view, content-free curricula and purely skills-based instruction end up “denying less-privileged children access to knowledge.”
The central irony, in Wexler’s view, is while the hyper-focus on reading, math, and skills-based instruction within the current policy context is aimed at closing the achievement gap, it effectively continues to move that goal ever further out of reach. As a result, the very education policies intentionally designed to increase student learning conspire to exacerbate educational inequity.
The Knowledge Gap makes a persuasive case for attending to the importance of rich content and high-quality curricula in elementary classrooms. However, the book does raise a few questions. First, and most importantly, providing access to complex texts is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one, for improving student learning and setting students up for success.
Take science instruction. Reading about science is important but it is not the same as learning science. While the former will introduce higher-level vocabulary, the latter involves explaining and understanding phenomena, asking relevant questions, conducting investigations, analyzing and interpreting data, and using evidence to build models to explain phenomena. It entails a deeper, richer, and more holistic learning experience.
Another central issue that is only modestly addressed in the book is what teachers themselves need to learn in order to employ a knowledge-focused reading curriculum. Professional learning for teachers often focuses on building skills that will be useful in any classroom. However, some research shows that it is more effective to focus on building knowledge and skills within the specific curriculum the teacher is using with their students, suggesting that it is not enough to just have good curriculum — teachers also need to be supported in learning how to best teach it with diverse students.
The Knowledge Gap also pays far less attention to the other ways that schools, classrooms, and teachers can support student learning. These include the intentional integration of social and emotional development into academic learning; well-prepared and supported teachers and leaders; engaged parents; culturally responsive practices and school cultures that foster a sense of belonging and affirm students’ identities; and supporting the whole child.
Finally, by keeping the focus on the why of content-rich curriculum, Wexler gives somewhat short shrift to how changes in curriculum and instruction will happen at scale, given the substantial shifts in educator mindset and behavior that are required to achieve that goal. She acknowledges that efforts to improve education have a complicated and often fraught history, one laden with cultural, political, and social considerations, writing, “... far too often, teachers are simply told to do things without having the underlying reasons explained — and without enough of an opportunity to explore and investigate these reasons for themselves.”
That said, a more complex understanding of the role of high-quality curriculum in acquiring literacy skills offered by The Knowledge Gap might give educators and decision-makers the inspiration they need to introduce those very important changes in curriculum and instruction.