The Knowledge GAP: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System and How to Fix It by Natalie Wexler

5. Unbalanced Literacy

  • The focus here is on Lucy Calkins, a professor at Columbia University, who gave us the balanced literacy program. Since it features some phonics along with whole reading approaches it served as a truce in the reading wars. It also featured books at the just right level that students choose for themselves. This idea is that students read books that they can already read and understand then gradually move up to the next level. As a result, many if not most students are reading below grade level, unlike basal system where all students read grade-level text.
  • In 2003 Joel Klein, the chancellor in New York City appointed by Mayor Bloomberg, adopted her program, which many schools still use. Years later Klein said that choosing Calkins’ program was his only regret as it prevented low-income children from acquiring what they needed most: knowledge. The so-called leveled readers don’t conform to the phonic rules that are taught. There is evidence that shows that leveled readers fail to boost children’s learning and may even inhibit it. Nonfiction text is often considered inconsiderate as there is no allowance for deficiencies in background knowledge.
  • The fact that students scatter to practice on books they choose makes it difficult for teachers to focus on content since every student is reading a different book. In 2013 Mayor de Blasio appointed a crony of Calkins chancellor. She pushed for balance reading even though a three-year study using the Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum produced significantly higher test scores. Natalie relates visits to New York City schools that demonstrate the shortcomings of the Calkins method, which has created a publishing empire for its author.

6. Billions for Education Reform, but Barely a Cent for Knowledge

  • Here the focus is on The Gates Foundation and other philanthropists who have leveraged a small percent (0.3%) of the total K-12 budget to have a big, and a negative impact with their reforms. This includes efforts to evaluate teachers using standardized test scores. Starting in 1993 the bedrock principle was making sure every student had a highly effective teacher. Top hires in the Obama administration department of education were associated with the Gates Foundation and Arne Duncan, the secretary, received $20 million from Gates while leading the Chicago public schools.
  • What they failed to understand is how tricky it is to evaluate teacher effectiveness. Teachers also saw that their ratings could fluctuate widely even though their practices hadn’t changed. Skills-based tests often are filled with passages that have nothing to do with what students studied. The type of professional development (PD) used is also to blame as it uses the same skills-based approach. It teaches generalities and expects teachers to figure out how to apply them to every piece of content. The Common Core also expects this will happen. What we should do is show teachers how to deliver specific content.
  • Meanwhile, nine countries that constantly outrank the US on international tests provide their students with content-rich curricula. If you do this the weakest teachers get the biggest boosts. It’s disingenuous to say education can’t have an impact on low-income students since it hasn’t been tried yet at a large scale. Other “hip” reforms include teaching character, grit, a growth mindset, and social/emotional skills. Restorative Justice, project-based learning, blended learning, and personalized learning are also hot topics.
  • Another big actor is Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Along with Gates, he is pushing for personalized learning and its heavy reliance on individual laptops. For genius dropouts like Gates and Zukerberg, this has a lot of appeal, but it doesn’t mean it will work with students who have less knowledge and fewer skills. It also sacrifices the opportunity for class discussion. There is some hope on the horizon as Gates is starting to see the value of the curriculum. Unfortunately, he only plans to spend money on the upper grades and only on English, math, and science.

Part Two – How We Got Here: The History Behind the Content-Free Curriculum – 7. Émile Meets the Common Core

  • Natalie provides some history of the progressive education movement whose hallmarks feature hands-on activities, building on students’ interests, and avoiding any kind of memorization and the direct delivery of knowledge. Given the information we have, there is no indication that progressive education works. Although they want students to engage in critical thinking, they don’t provide the knowledge one needs to critically think. The more you know about a topic, the better you are able to think about it critically. Natalie’s key point is that reform should start at the elementary level if not sooner.

8. Politics and the Quest for Content

  • Here is a summary of the history of attempts to specific just what children should learn. When content is specified the big questions are whose knowledge and who decides. The key player here is E. D. Hirsch Jr., a liberal, who was blasted by the left for putting together a list of what children should learn in school. He was blasted politically for being Eurocentric and ideologically for expecting kids to learn a list of specific facts.
  • With vague curricula in place it’s difficult to train teachers effectively since you can’t predict what content they will be expected to teach. Another effort to standardize content by Nash and Crabtree in 1994 drew fire from the left and the right. In the 1990s Massachusetts adopted a set of curriculum frameworks and has since come out on top of national and even international tests. Hirsch’s curricula served as the basis for the Core Knowledge Language Arts program that some schools still use.
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