We do indeed have a crisis on our hands, but year after year we fail to diagnose and address it. With 21st century skills, learning styles, comprehension strategies, blame-the-teacher “reforms,” and dozens of other fads clouding our thinking, research-driven common sense improvements get little attention.
It’s frustrating, but our Core Knowledge community is dedicated to spreading the word on rigorous academics. For anyone out there who needs yet more evidence of the desperate need for building broad knowledge and skills, two new reports are worth examining.
“Just the facts, ma’am”
ACT’s The Condition of College & Career Readiness tackles the high school problem with stark graphics. The one below, showing the massive gaps among youth by race and ethnicity, is especially striking:
Then, a ray of hope. Taking a “core curriculum” in high school appears to greatly increase the odds that a young adult is well prepared. In the chart below, “Core” stands for core curriculum, which ACT defines as “4 years of English and 3 years each of mathematics, science, and social studies” in high school.
That gives us one clear step to take in closing college- and career-readiness gaps. But things are never so simple. You see, most students are already taking a core curriculum:
Clearly, all core curricula are not created equal. But we know better that to lay all blame at the high school doorstep. And in case we forget, Mathematica’s Kindergartners’ Skills at School Entry: An Analysis of the ECLS-K reminds us. This study is interesting because it does not look just at the usual race/ethnicity and income factors. Instead, it focuses on four specific “risk factors”: “the child lives in a single-parent household, the child’s mother has less than a high school education, the child’s household income is below the federal poverty line, and the primary language spoken in the home is not English.”
You may be surprised to see that nearly half—44%—of entering kindergartners face at least one of these risk factors:
Sadly, you may be even more surprised to see how devastating even just one risk factor is in terms of reading, math, and working memory:
(Note: IRT stands for “item response theory.” The children were given two-stage assessments in which their performance in the first stage determined the difficulty of the test items they were given in the second stage.)
If these two new reports tell us anything, it’s that we must intervene early. Gaps that exist at kindergarten entry still exist at the end of high school—ripe for replication when our underprepared young adults have children of their own.
“May the Force be with you”
Schools with coherent, cumulative curricula that build academic knowledge, vocabulary, and skills are intervening. Curriculum is not the solution, of course, but it is a necessary part of the foundation for student (and teacher) learning. Unfortunately, far too many school, district, and policy leaders are unaware of how to make their curricula stronger, much less how to harness a rigorous curriculum for benefits such as early identification of students’ needs and increased teacher collaboration. For those looking to take the first step, I strongly recommend Harvard’s Lead for Literacy series. In 16 one-page memos, Lead for Literacy clearly identifies best practices for literacy programs, assessments, professional development, and program selection. The series may not be as powerful as the Force, but they’ll give leaders a good shot at dramatically increasing students’ knowledge and skills, and enabling them to learn more both in and out of school.