Sol Stern shines a welcome spotlight on New York City’s Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) pilot program in a Daily News op-ed. Launched to considerable fanfare under then-Chancellor Joel Klein three years ago, the program has quietly continued in ten low-income elementary schools. It represents ”a ray of reading hope in the city,” says Stern, and one that stands in sharp contrast to other initiatives “including giving cash bonuses to teachers and principals and paying minority children to show up in class and behave.”
Two large (and largely overlooked) problems remain at the root of the reading crisis: a lack of a coherent elementary school curriculum, and a stubborn insistence on teaching and testing reading comprehension as a how-to ”skill.” Comprehension is highly correlated with general knowledge—the more you know, the greater your ability to read, write, speak and listen with fluency and comprehension. Thus an essential component of reading comprehension instruction must be a focused commitment to build broad background knowledge in a coherent manner from the earliest days of schools–precisely what CKLA seeks to do. Stern elaborates on how the curriculum differs from the dominant approach in most classrooms:
“Fourth-grade reading scores around the country improved somewhat over the past decade thanks to greater emphasis on phonics and word decoding in early grades. But the effect wore off by the eighth grade, as children had to show greater comprehension of more difficult texts. What was missing E.D. Hirsch believed, was greater attention in the early grades to building students’ background knowledge. So Hirsch and his foundation created a reading program for the early grades that contained the necessary phonics drills as well as the background knowledge that students need to improve their reading comprehension.”
Perhaps most significantly, the New York City pilot program also includes a study of 10 matched control schools for comparison. Stern points out that the program has produced stunning results to-date:
“After the first year, Klein announced the early results: On a battery of reading tests, the kindergartners in the Core Knowledge program had achieved gains five times greater than those of students in the control group. The second-year study showed that the Core Knowledge kids made reading gains twice as great as those of students in the control group. The results of the third-year study, now that the children have completed second grade, won’t be announced until sometime this autumn, probably at about the same time as the 2011 NAEP reading results are made public. It is probable that the Core Knowledge program will continue to show promising results, while scores on the NAEP eighth-grade reading test will be as stagnant as ever.
Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal, where his piece will also appear, argues that New York should keep the program in place ”showing the education authorities that the solution to the city’s reading problem is in plain sight.”
Unfortunately, rationality is usually in short supply at the Department of Education; Klein has moved on, and it’s not clear whether Hirsch’s reading program remains on the department’s agenda. Right now, there’s no guaranteed funding for continuation of the program.