Of Ostriches and the Achievement Gap

by Lisa Hansel
October 14th, 2013

All signs point to just one way for schools to dramatically narrow the achievement gap: implement a coherent, cumulative, grade-by-grade, content-rich curriculum that builds broad knowledge and essential skills. That’s the foundation on which high-achieving, more equitable school systems (here and abroad) have built the rest of their educational infrastructure. Specific knowledge and skills for each grade give direction to teacher preparation, enable teacher collaboration, empower parents to better support their children’s learning, increase the quality of textbooks, create stability for students who change schools, etc. When the whole infrastructure is moving in the same direction, students’ education is coherent and learning accelerates.

But seriously, who cares? Let’s just stick our heads in the sand.


(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

It’s easy. We can pretend that schools are doing the best they can under (very truly) difficult circumstances. We can pretend that the narrowing of the curriculum doesn’t matter, that the past several decades of cognitive science findings do not exist, that comprehension, critical thinking, and learning to learn will arise magically from a scattershot of engaging lessons.

That’s what we’ve been doing—and it’s the mistake most states and school districts are now repeating with the Common Core. Despite the repeated admonitions that the Common Core ELA standards can only be met with a rich, knowledge-building curriculum, most educators and leaders talk of individual lessons with isolated content and skills—not of coherent bodies of knowledge that enable skill development.

If your head is buried, you can’t see the results. Fortunately, there are some clear-eyed participants in this fractured ed reform world who have drawn attention to three of the worst consequences of our collective denial on curriculum.

1) 17 year olds’ reading scores are flat. E. D. Hirsch explains this one in the Answer Sheet:

The reading proficiency of high school seniors has not budged since the great verbal decline of the 1970s, which was well documented by drops in scores on the SAT, ACT, and Iowa Tests of Educational Development. So, why haven’t the short-term early boosts in grades 4 and 8 translated into better verbal scores in grade 12?

Reading tests in later grades are more knowledge-intensive than the tests in the early grades. Emphasis on phonics (which has improved early reading) plus test-prep aren’t enough to do well on these later tests, which require broad knowledge and vocabulary. Scholars of the subject (including the late great reading researcher Jeanne Chall) showed that 12th-grade scores declined in the 1970s and stayed flat, because of a narrowing of the school curriculum.

2) Far too many teachers don’t understand that skills hardly ever transfer from one topic to the next. Paul Bruno tackles this on his blog:

One of my most memorable experiences in my two-year credential+MA program came out of a class discussion of chapter 3 of How People Learn, on “Learning and Transfer”. Much of that chapter was dedicated to discussing the challenges faced in getting students to “transfer” something they’ve learned in one context and apply it successfully in another context….

[Studies] suggest very strongly that the sort of transfer many teachers claim to want is at best much more difficult than we typically acknowledge and at worst largely impossible….

In my graduate school classroom … rather than challenging our conceptions of transfer, the finding simply represented a puzzle: Why did students not transfer the problem-solving strategy from one situation to the other and how could teachers have taught the strategy differently to promote such transfer?

For what feels like the billionth time: Skills depend chiefly on knowledge! If you want to read with comprehension and think critically about the Bill of Rights, you have to learn a lot about the Bill of Rights. Your resulting ability to think critically about the Bill of Rights will not help you in the science lab or at the art museum. It won’t even help very much if you want to analyze the Civil War—there’s a bunch of stuff between the Bill of Rights and the Civil War that you have to learn in order to analyze the Civil War.

3) Our assessment system is less helpful—especially for our neediest students—than it should be. Marc Tucker brings clarity to this one. Technically he’s interviewing Jim Pellegrino, but it’s more like a conversation—and Tucker’s pointed summaries make me smile:

In the United States, there is strong resistance to the idea that the federal government or even the states should specify what the curriculum should be, or, for that matter, what instructional techniques should be used…. But what I thought I heard you saying is that how one teaches fractions actually defines what the curriculum is and it is the curriculum that really defines what the standards mean.  The standards might say that the student will learn to do fractions, but there is a world of difference between simply teaching the algorithms needed by students to do standard fraction problems and teaching ratio and proportion at a fairly deep level.  Isn’t that why the top-performing countries have based their assessments on an explicit curriculum and provided strong guidance on instruction?…

It sounds as though standards are incomplete unless they are tied closely to curriculum, instruction and assessment, as is generally the case in the top-performing countries.



  1. While I agree teaching content is a good way to improve learning outcomes for low ability kids, it’s simply not true that it will end the achievement gap, or even narrow it.

    Comment by Education Realist — October 14, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

  2. I am curious as to why “Education Realist” asserts that teaching content will not end or even narrow the achievement gap. “Education Realist” offers no evidence or reasoning to back up this assertion.

    The fact that “ER” refers to “low ability kids” makes me think that “ER” believes achievement is based solely on some innate, fixed ability, not knowledge, and that inborn ability is therefore destiny. I recommend that “ER” read Carol Dweck’s Mindset, along with E.D. Hirsh, Jr’s The Knowledge Deficit and various other titles. These books do back up their assertions with evidence.

    Comment by Cynthia — October 15, 2013 @ 11:21 am

  3. Intelligence is distributed on a bell curve. I absolutely believe that all non-cognitively-handicapped kids (and some with handicaps) can do much better with better curriculum and more effective and efficient instruction, but the gap will always exist IF the kids on the right tail are challenged and IF the testing discriminates well at that end (which most state testing does not). We can move the curve rightward but cannot eliminate disparities. Everyone has a ceiling; I could never have been an engineer or a physicist (or a musician or and artist). Statements like “all children can learn (the same material in the same amount of time in the same classroom), and “all children will be proficient” (at even minimal levels) are impossible fantasies.

    I am also willing to bet that international comparisons don’t include the percentage of kids at the left tail who are actually in school and included in testing. Even in this country, severely handicapped kids weren’t in schools until at least the 1970s.

    Comment by momof4 — October 15, 2013 @ 1:22 pm

  4. Please let me clarify one thing that I should have clarified in the original post. When I wrote of the achievement gap, I meant the gaps in achievement between students from higher- and lower-income homes, as well as the gaps by race and ethnicity. While eliminating these gaps would require major changes across our society, these gaps could be greatly narrowed with better instructional materials.

    Best, Lisa

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — October 15, 2013 @ 1:33 pm

  5. It’s possible that ER and momof4 think that there is a tight correlation between innate intelligence and socio-economic status and, further, a cause-effect relationship in which innate intelligence is causative and determines SES. If one takes all of these assumptions were true, then it follows that curriculum improvements would not be expected to close the achievement gap.

    However, I (and, I think, others), think that innate intelligence is less tightly correlated with SES and that the causal arrow points both ways (with intelligence being an outcome of curriculum-like factors in the home). In this case, it makes sense that improvements in teaching and learning will close the achievement gap.

    I don’t mean to open up a whole can of worms here. I’m just attempting to explain why people may reach different conclusions.

    Comment by Hainish — October 15, 2013 @ 6:19 pm

  6. The results of the most recent OECD education study on adults tells us both that America’s education deficit and willingness amplifies the impact of economic disparities. It appears to me that we have entered a vicious cycle where the rich can opt out either through a real estate purchase or privatization of services like education and the middle and poor suffer from educational failures. We essentially have several generations of teacher that have been educated and had imposed by districts systems of teaching that focus on skills to the detriment of all types of content. Question is how we pull out of the nose dive. I would agree better and richer, more cohesive content, but what I am seeing in DC is not inspiring me to think it is actually getting implemented.

    Comment by DC Parent — October 15, 2013 @ 9:08 pm

  7. There are some excellent points in regards to the measures used to promote better “scores” such as e-learning, blended and site-based learning,accelerated learning not to mention on-line learning. In order to repair our educational system, an re-evaluation of purpose must be obtained. When is the student going to become a stake-holder, better yet, the only stake holder in our educational system…

    When the conversation begins to address the need for alignment of quantitative and qualitative data to measure growth and achievement (rather than performance), then let’s talk…

    Comment by Lawrence Norman — November 4, 2013 @ 1:51 pm

  8. I would have to disagree with your view on skills not being able to be transferred from one context to another. Through my own experience as a science teacher and curriculum specialist, I have strived to help teachers find the horizontal alignment among their standards so that students are able to see the bigger picture between what they are learning in the science classroom and how it applies throughout their courses. By working together and bringing teachers to having a clearer understanding of standards, they are better able to work within and outside of their specialized content area. Thus, bringing about cross-curricular transfer of knowledge and skills.

    Comment by Carlos Flores — November 14, 2013 @ 3:38 pm

  9. […] piece goes to the same well as E. D. Hirsch, who founded the Core Knowledge Foundation, Lisa Hansel, the CK Foundation’s current Pondiscio, and Daniel Willingham, who sits on the […]

    Pingback by Content Knowledge and Reading Comprehension: Bold Talk and Backpedaling | educationrealist — March 30, 2014 @ 5:43 pm

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