Dear Chiefs: This Is Your Chance to Close the Reading Achievement Gap

by Guest Blogger
December 1st, 2015

Assuming all goes as planned, we should have a new federal education law by the end of the year. Dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), this version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would greatly increase states’ options for evaluating schools and teachers. As this ESSA cheat sheet explains:

States would still have to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and break out the data for whole schools, plus different “subgroups” of students (English-learners, students in special education, racial minorities, those in poverty).

But beyond that, states get wide discretion in setting goals, figuring out just what to hold schools and districts accountable for, and deciding how to intervene in low-performing schools. And while tests still have to be a part of state accountability systems, states must incorporate other factors that get at students’ opportunity to learn, like school-climate and teacher engagement, or access to and success in advanced coursework.

Or access to, support in, and success in a knowledge-rich, well-rounded elementary curriculum.

Under pressure from high-stakes accountability and as a result of misconceptions about the role of knowledge in developing skills, elementary schools have reduced science and social studies to just 16 to 24 minutes a day. That’s the average time allocation, according to a nationally representative survey of teachers, which means many schools spend even less time introducing children to our world. Worse, the kids who are least likely to have opportunities to learn science and social studies outside of school are the most likely to attend schools that narrowly focus on reading and math—with the bulk of the day devoted to language arts.

It is not working.

The notion that nothing is more important than reading is understandable, but it’s also self-defeating. Kids who don’t get to study science and social studies—especially in the early grades—don’t become great readers. They become, as Susan Neuman says, “word callers.” They learn to sound out words, but then they don’t know what those words mean. Science, history, geography, music, and art, if rigorously and enthusiastically taught throughout elementary school, are the cure. These are the subjects in which children acquire academic vocabulary, not to mention the essential conceptual knowledge that prepares children for more in-depth studies in later grades.


“Democracy” is relatively easy to sound out, but relatively difficult to understand. To develop real readers, in the early grades we must teach science, social studies, the arts, and how to sound out words. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

With ESSA, states could strategically develop indicators that incentivize building knowledge and vocabulary. Even a simple indicator—such as requiring at least 150 minutes per week on science, another 150 on history and geography, plus 60 on music and art—could send a strong signal on priorities. That signal would be even stronger if schools had to ensure that all students met these minimal time requirements. Right now, far too many schools pull students out of science, social studies, and arts classes for remedial reading and math.

States that want to go further could specify a grade-by-grade core of topics to be taught in elementary school, and then ensure that the passages on the reading comprehension tests in grades 3–5 were on those topics—and only those topics. Radical though that sounds, it’s actually pretty similar to what happens in our most revered tests, Advanced Placement, in which detailed course syllabi leave no guessing as to what will be tested. That’s inherently fairer than the current state assessment regime, in which the topics of reading passages are a complete mystery, thereby privileging the children with the broadest background knowledge.

It’s also more likely to narrow the knowledge gap, which ought to be the number one goal of America’s elementary schools. But even mandating and testing a rich array of topics won’t get the job done. States and schools must do far more to address disparities in opportunities to learn outside of school. Every single day, some kids get an extra dose of academic knowledge and vocabulary at home; others don’t. To actually close the gap, the further behind a child is, the more time he needs in school and the more access he needs to weekend and summer enrichment. Wise states would offer preschool for three and four year olds, require full-day kindergarten, and extend the school day, week, and year for our neediest children. They would also increase funding for libraries, museums, book mobiles, and programs that encourage parents to read to their children every day.

For far too long, our neediest youth have not found out how far behind they are until they are pushed into remedial courses in community colleges or turned down for apprenticeships. This must stop. In the elementary years, the gaps are still small enough to tackle. ESSA gives states the flexibility needed to show real courage—or cowardice. How many will step up?


No Progress on Accountability, No Hope for Equity

by Guest Blogger
April 7th, 2015

I try not to give in to despair, but in reading recent recommendations for the reauthorization of ESEA, I see America wasting another 50 years on unproductive reforms.

James S. Coleman said schools matter a great deal for poor kids, but we focus on the factors outside of school mattering more. A Nation At Risk warned of rigor’s disappearance, but we continue to pursue content-light strategies instead of content-heavy subjects. High-performing nations demonstrate that a national core curriculum (that specifies knowledge, not mere skills) enables improvement in everything from teacher preparation to student learning and assessment, but we refuse to do the hard work of selecting a core of knowledge for all our students. Our last decade under No Child Left Behind has shown that reading tests without a definite curriculum are counterproductive, but here we go again.

It was with high hopes that I began reading “Accountability and the Federal Role: A Third Way on ESEA.” A consensus document by Linda Darling-Hammond of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and Paul T. Hill of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, this third way makes important points about the need for assessment and accountability to stay focused on closing the achievement gap—and the need for flexibility in demonstrating student and school progress.

In particular, there are two points of agreement that I find very heartening:

Parents and the public need to know whether children are learning what they need to graduate high school, enter and complete four-year college, or get a rewarding, career-ladder job….

Because a student’s level and pace of learning in any one year depend in part on what was learned previously and on the efforts of many professionals working together, the consequences of high and low performance should attach to whole schools, rather than to individual educators.

Here we have two essential points: there are specific things that children need to know and these specific things build year to year. I actually became hopeful that this consensus document would take the next logical step and call for a content-specific, grade-by-grade, well-rounded curriculum. That’s the only thing that would make it clear if “children are learning what they need” and that would enable professionals to work together to build knowledge across grades.

But my hopes were short lived. The consensus document retreated to politically safe, educationally useless ground: “Because what children need to know evolves with knowledge, technology, and economic demands, an accountability system must encourage high performance and continuous improvement.” Later they actually call for “rich subject matter assessments,” but then undermine the idea by ignoring curriculum and, once again, retreating: “Because science, technology, and the economy are constantly shifting, the measures and standards used to assess schools must be continuously updated to reflect new content and valued skills.”

I hear all the time that information is growing at a shocking rate, and that today’s knowledge will be out of date before students graduate. Obviously, students don’t need knowledge, they need to learn how to find knowledge.

Please people! “Information” is only growing with lightning speed if you count the cat videos being loaded onto YouTube. There is amazing research being done—but very little of it affects elementary and secondary education, or college, career, and citizenship. In a terrific new book, Urban Myths about Learning and Education, Pedro De Bruyckere, Paul A. Kirschner, and Casper D. Hulshof tackle this silliness:

To name just a few things that we learned when we were children: the Pythagorean theorem still holds true…, as does the gravitational constant and the acceleration of a falling body on Earth…, there are still seven continents…, the Norman conquest of England took place in 1066, and a limerick has five lines and a sonnet fourteen. The fact is that much or most of what has passed for knowledge in previous generations is still valid and useful.



According to Urban Myths, a former Google executive said, “Between the birth of the world and 2003, there were five exabytes … of information created. We [now] create five exabytes every two days.” (Informational image courtesy of Shutterstock.)


What Darling-Hammond and Hill should have written is this: Because cognitive science shows that broad knowledge is essential to meet technology, economic, and citizenship demands, an accountability system must encourage a content-specific, well-rounded curriculum that inspires high performance and continuous improvement by testing what has been taught and thus providing data that teachers can actually use to inform instruction.

Darling-Hammond and Hill are thought leaders in the education arena. They know that skills depend on knowledge, and they know that there is a body of knowledge—from the Constitution to the Pythagorean theorem—that could form a core curriculum for the United States. In their third way, they are being politically realistic. And I am falling into despair.

Our kids don’t need more political pragmatism. They need excellence and equity. They need leaders to ensure that all children get an equal opportunity to learn “what they need to graduate high school, enter and complete four-year college, or get a rewarding, career-ladder job.”

For yet more evidence that political pragmatism isn’t working, check out the latest NAEP report, which shows almost no meaningful growth in vocabulary. Vocabulary is a proxy for knowledge and critical to comprehension. As E. D. Hirsch has explained, vocabulary is the key to upward mobility. Cognitive science and common sense have given us a clear path forward: build knowledge and skills together with a content-specific, grade-by-grade, well-rounded curriculum. Let’s not waste another 50 years. It will be incredibly hard for Americans to agree on a core curriculum. But nothing else will work.