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

Part Three – How We Can Change: Creating and Delivering Content-Focused Curriculum – 9. The Common Core: New Life for Knowledge, or Another Nail in its Coffin?

  • The most widespread misconception about the Common Core is that it requires specific content. It states that students need regular practice reading complex tests, they need to be able to ground their claims in evidence from the text, and they must-have extensive opportunities to build knowledge. Somehow the piece about building knowledge has gotten lost on many. The Common Core did steer clear of content for political reasons thus it appeared to many as a pile of skills. This was less of a problem for math as in math, knowledge is skills. There are different ways to get an answer, but there is no separate content.
  • The Obama Administration essentially coerced states to adopt the Common Core by offering money and waivers to the requirements of NCLB. It required that 50% of text in elementary schools be nonfiction while this number went up to 75% in secondary schools. Some English teachers mistakenly assumed that they had to meet these percentages, which is not the case. Those on the right saw this as a power grab by the federal government while those on the left decried the use of test scores to evaluate teachers. Putting “complex text” in front of students did not mean putting “impenetrable text” in front of students, nor did it stop teachers from using leveled readers. Some educators have realized, however, that it is impossible to read complex texts without building knowledge.

10. No More Jackpot Standards

  • Most of this chapter is a case studying involving Washoe County Schools in Nevada. They realized that only 18% of the state standards were covered on the state test so they had teachers focus on these so-called “Jackpot Standards” with great success. When the Common Core came along this strategy no longer worked since the heart of Common Core expects students to read more complex texts and nonfiction. Also, the focus is on evidence in the text rather than skills so working on one skill at a time no longer makes sense.
  • Most teachers were afraid that exposing students to complex text would lead to frustration and struggling. What many teachers found out was they were underestimating their students. It seems that struggles are a necessary part of acquiring knowledge and knowing stuff makes you a better reader. It’s also important to realize that it will take time for your students to demonstrate progress. They introduced a new professional development model that had teachers plan collaboratively, try out the lessons, and come back and reflect on how it went. Perhaps the most important thing, however, is leadership. If the principal doesn’t back this approach over time, it is not likely to take off school-wide.

11. Don’t Forget to Write

  • The hero in this chapter is Judith Hochman, who was a curriculum coordinator for a school for students with language-based learning disabilities. She found that writing helped her students compensate as long as it was taught systematically with an early focus on how to construct a sentence. She saw written English as a second language for English speakers. The Common Core expected a dramatic improvement in writing abilities but didn’t explain how to do it, and many teachers were never trained to teach writing. Hochman found that comprehension, analytic ability, and writing were connected and writing was the key to unlocking the other two.
  • She started by giving students sentence stems to complete and embedded them in the content being studied so kids had information to draw on. This also meant they had to retrieve what they learned, which helped solidify it in long term memory. She also uses outlines to organize thought and reduce the demand on working memory. By writing about what they just learned they were essentially teaching it and allowing teachers to assess their learning. This is the opposite of the Blended Learning/Writer’s Workshop approach that has students mostly write about their own experiences. Looking at one sentence at a time avoids overwhelming students with a page containing lots of red ink.
  • Here choice can be bad as having every student write about what they are interested in runs the risk that the teacher lacks a depth of knowledge regarding what some students are writing about. Non-English teachers usually don’t see teaching writing as their job so they assign little writing. Meanwhile, better-educated parents who know the value of writing skills see to it that their children acquire them. Natalie also includes some success stories from schools that have followed her advice.

12. Scaling Up: Can It Be Done?

  • The answer is yes, but it won’t happen quickly. Natalie starts with the story of efforts in New York State to create a knowledge-based curriculum. This was the result of money they got from a Race to the Top federal grant, which also required that they use test scores as part of teachers’ evaluations. This caused a lot of opposition from teacher unions. The program is called Engage NY and unlike other district and state curricula, it is freely available online. The impact of open source curricula has the potential to introduce vast numbers of educators to a new way of teaching. Given the free-for-all nature of the Internet, there is no telling how it will pan out.
  • New York partnered with the Core Knowledge Foundation and its approach has been copied by other free and for-fee curricula on the market. While many districts have adopted content-rich curricula, many schools have stuck to the blended learning approach. Many have done so as the tests still focus on skills. Some places are actually testing students on what they have been taught. There is also a dearth of professional developers who can help teachers adapt to content-rich curricula. The transformation from a focus on skills and leveled readers to one on content and knowledge, however, is beginning to take hold.

Epilogue

  • While Natalie has yet to see a school that has fully adopted her plan, there are some that are working on it. Superintendents need to lead by giving school leaders and teachers the reasoning behind her plan. There is also a need to replace current high-stakes tests that treat reading as a collection of skills and have a negative impact on many as they push talented teachers out of the profession. Natalie recommends tests in decoding in the early grades and general knowledge tests beginning in the upper elementary grades. Tests of writing can start with completing sentence stems and move on to essays on specific content. To rate schools, we can use inspectors trained in what to look for like other countries do. We also need to improve teacher training and provide mental health and other support services.
  • Starting at the end of chapter two, Natalie reports on her observations of two classrooms through the 2016-2017 school year. One focuses on the standard skills approach while the other worked on building knowledge. Her observations support the program she outlines in this book, but I have summarized them here. Thanks, Natalie.

Natalie Wexler

  • Natalie is and education journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and other publications. She is a senior contributor to forbes.com and the co-author, with Judith C. Hochman, of The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades. Before turning to education, Wexler worked as a freelance writer and essayist on a variety of topics, as well as a lawyer and legal historian. Check out her website at nataliewexler.com Follow her on Twitter @natwexler or send her an email natalie@nataliewexler.com.
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