The Knowledge Gap: The hidden cause of America's broken education system--and how to fix it

The Knowledge Gap: The hidden cause of America's broken education system--and how to fix it

by Natalie Wexler


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The untold story of the root cause of America's education crisis—and the seemingly endless cycle of multigenerational poverty.

It was only after years within the education reform movement that Natalie Wexler stumbled across a hidden explanation for our country's frustrating lack of progress when it comes to providing every child with a quality education. The problem wasn't one of the usual scapegoats: lazy teachers, shoddy facilities, lack of accountability. It was something no one was talking about: the elementary school curriculum's intense focus on decontextualized reading comprehension "skills" at the expense of actual knowledge. In the tradition of Dale Russakoff's The Prize and Dana Goldstein's The Teacher Wars, Wexler brings together history, research, and compelling characters to pull back the curtain on this fundamental flaw in our education system—one that fellow reformers, journalists, and policymakers have long overlooked, and of which the general public, including many parents, remains unaware.

But The Knowledge Gap isn't just a story of what schools have gotten so wrong—it also follows innovative educators who are in the process of shedding their deeply ingrained habits, and describes the rewards that have come along: students who are not only excited to learn but are also acquiring the knowledge and vocabulary that will enable them to succeed. If we truly want to fix our education system and unlock the potential of our neediest children, we have no choice but to pay attention.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780735213562
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/04/2020
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 22,702
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Natalie Wexler is an education journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other publications. She is a senior contributor to and the coauthor, 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 a legal historian.

Read an Excerpt

On a sunny November morning in 2016, Gaby Arredondo is try­ing to initiate twenty first-graders into the mysteries of reading.

Today’s particular mystery is captions. Ms. Arredondo recently gave a test that asked her students to identify a caption, and—even though she had spent fifteen minutes teaching the concept—many chose the ti­tle of the passage instead. Maybe they were confused because the cap­tions she had taught as examples were all at the top of the page, like a title, whereas the caption on the test appeared under the picture. Her goal today is to show her students that what makes something a caption isn’t where it appears on the page or what it looks like but what it does: it’s a label that describes a picture.

“What is a caption?” Ms. Arredondo begins brightly to the first group of five students gathered before her at a semicircular table. As she speaks, she writes caption on a whiteboard next to her chair. No one answers. Ms. Arredondo writes a second word: label.

“It’s a label,” volunteers one girl.

“What kind of a label?” Ms. Arredondo prods.

A boy chimes in: “It’s a label that describes things.”

“What kinds of things? Does it tell us the author or the title?”

 “It tells us the author and the title,” the boy repeats dutifully.

“No,” Ms. Arredondo says. “It tells us about the picture.

She shows them a photo from a book called Mothers, which has the words daughters, mother, and son superimposed in the appropriate spots. “So, what is a caption?”

“Words?” a girl named Nevaeh ventures.

The Washington, D.C., charter school where Ms. Arredondo teaches, Star Academy, has a good reputation and has benefited from both philan­thropic and government funding. Located in a high-poverty African American community, the school has a staff that includes a full-time oc­cupational therapist, two speech-and-language therapists, and two school psychologists—critical resources, considering that 17 percent of the stu­dents need special education services and all families are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced school meals.

And Ms. Arredondo, in her second year of teaching, is a highly valued faculty member. She graduated from Princeton University, the first in her working-class family to go to college—an achievement that was possible, she feels, only because she managed to get into a selective public high school. She became a teacher in hopes of helping other kids transform their circumstances through education.

During the months I’ve been observing Ms. Arredondo’s class, I’ve seen that she’s skilled at classroom management techniques, firm when she needs to be but also warm enough to establish bonds with her students. She’s hardworking, dedicated, and patient with these often rambunctious kids.

But after Nevaeh suggests that caption just means words, Ms. Arre­dondo’s patience seems to be fraying. She starts pointing to the text on the page opposite the photo, asking, “Is this a caption? . . . Is this a cap­tion? . . . Is this a caption?” The kids repeatedly answer, “No.”

“It’s not just any word,” she says. “The words describe what? I’m a little upset right now, because I’ve said it.”

“A label?” one of the kids offers again.

“What does the caption tell us?” Ms. Arredondo says more softly.

“About the pictures,” a girl says at last.

 “The pictures,” Ms. Arredondo echoes.

The kids in the next group keep trying to pull the discussion away from the abstract nature of a caption and toward the concrete. One of the nonfiction books that Ms. Arredondo is holding up is about sharks, with vivid photos that pique the children’s curiosity—especially one showing a shark that has half-swallowed what the caption at the side simply iden­tifies as a “sea animal.”

“Oooh!” the students cry out. “What’s he eating? Oh my God! Is it a fish?”

“If you were going to write a caption on this page, what would you write?” Ms. Arredondo asks. The students don’t answer.

Next, she shows them a picture of a planet that the students decide is the moon. They point to the title, the subheading—anything but the cap­tion. Finally, she points to the caption herself and reads it aloud: “Now you can take a trip to Mars without ever leaving Earth.”

“Right there!” she exclaims. “That’s our caption. This isn’t the moon! It’s Mars! So we have to read the caption so we know what the picture is about!”

The kids aren’t buying it. “It’s the moon,” one student declares.

“I thought Mars was red,” a girl says skeptically. The photo is in black and white.

Ms. Arredondo doesn’t respond. It’s time to move on to the culminating activity she has planned: students will write their own captions. She shows them a funny photo of a group of goats perched on the branches of a tree, like absurd four-legged birds. I find myself wondering why goats would be up in a tree, but the students don’t ask, and Ms. Arredondo doesn’t volun­teer an explanation. The point of this lesson isn’t to learn about tree-climbing goats—or sharks or planets. It’s to learn about captions.

Ms. Arredondo goes off to check on the students who are working independently elsewhere in the classroom while the kids at the table write a variety of captions on Post-it notes, some legible and some not. One boy colors with markers. Another student writes riog. Two boys who are sitting next to each other both write goll. When I ask one of them what his caption says, he tells me it says giggles.

But when Ms. Arredondo comes back, the boy says the word is sup­posed to be goat. When another student objects that he hasn’t spelled the word right, Ms. Arredondo answers calmly, “That’s okay. That’s how he spells goat.” Her response reflects prevailing views on the best way to handle spelling errors in the early-elementary grades: she doesn’t want to get sidetracked into a spelling lesson, and she doesn’t want her stu­dents to lose confidence about writing down their ideas.

Ms. Arredondo sticks one of the Post-its with the word goll under the photograph of the tree-climbing goats, saying, “That tells us more about this picture.”

While Ms. Arredondo’s approach might seem peculiar, it’s the way she and virtually all other elementary teachers in the United States have been trained. If she’s having a hard time engaging her students, it’s not because she’s a bad teacher. In many ways, she does an excellent job.

The theory that has shaped the American approach to elementary education goes like this: Reading—a term used to encompass not just matching letters to sounds but also comprehension—is a set of skills that can be taught completely disconnected from content. It doesn’t re­ally matter what students are reading. Teach them to identify captions in a simple text—or find the main idea, or make inferences, or any one of a number of other skills—and eventually they’ll be able to grasp the meaning of any text put in front of them.

And, the argument goes, through the third grade, children need to spend their time “learning to read” before they can progress to “reading to learn.” Social studies and science can wait; history is too abstract for their young minds and should wait. In the early years, the focus must be on the reading skills that will equip students to acquire knowledge about the world—later.

It’s not surprising, then, that reading has long dominated the elemen­tary curriculum. As far back as 1977, early-elementary teachers were spending more than twice as much time on reading as on science and social studies combined. Even in the upper-elementary grades, when students have presumably already acquired basic reading skills, teachers spent twice as much time on reading as on either science or social studies alone.

That focus only intensified after Congress passed the No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001. NCLB required annual reading and math tests in grades three through eight and once in high school—and threat­ened significant consequences if schools failed to get 100 percent of their students to proficiency by 2014, a goal that was widely recognized as im­possible to meet. As a result, the amount of time schools spent on reading and math grew, while time spent on other subjects—particularly social studies—correspondingly decreased.

By 2012, early-elementary teachers reported spending an average of only sixteen minutes a day on social studies and nineteen on science—figures that, because they are self-reported, may well be overestimates. The elementary “literacy block,” largely focused on reading, now con­sumes anywhere from ninety minutes to three hours each day. And teach­ers have shaped their reading instruction in ways they believe will prepare their students to do well on standardized tests, which aim to assess com­prehension skills. The rest of the day is devoted mostly to math.

The schedule may allot half an hour or forty-five minutes to social studies or science a few times a week, usually at the end of the day, when students are tired: a simple science experiment or a read-aloud about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln before Presidents’ Day. (Strug­gling readers are unlikely to get even that, because they’re often pulled from social studies and science to get extra help.) In any event—and es­pecially when the same teacher is responsible for teaching all subjects, as is usually the case—often that time ends up also being spent on reading or math.
The state-mandated tests each spring represent only a small fraction of the time consumed by related activities. Up to a quarter of the school year is spent preparing for tests, taking practice tests, and taking “bench­mark” tests designed to predict performance at the end of the year.
Opposition to testing began brewing soon after the passage of No Child Left Behind, but it reached a fever pitch after most states adopted the Common Core starting in 2010. The new tests created to align with those academic standards were longer and significantly tougher. Across the country, especially in affluent suburban districts, many par­ents joined an “opt-out” movement. Even then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, whom many blamed for the orgy of testing, acknowl­edged that the situation had gotten out of hand. In 2015, Congress re­placed NCLB with the Every Student Succeeds Act, which attaches fewer consequences to low scores. States are still required to give annual read­ing and math exams and report the results, however, and there is little evidence they’re reducing either the amount of testing or the impor­tance placed on it.

To be sure, there are compelling arguments in favor of testing. No Child Left Behind required that schools report scores for various subgroups—including minority and low-income students—which brought to light seri­ous and long-hidden inequities. And reading tests are seen as the only way to hold schools accountable for giving children the skills they’ll need to learn history, science, and other subjects later on. Students who aren’t read­ing on grade level by third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school. If the child is poor, the odds are even worse.
Still, an overwhelming majority of teachers deplore the emphasis on testing and the consequent narrowing of the curriculum. Many would prefer to spend more time on social studies and science, and they know their students would as well. As Ms. Arredondo observed, “They love learning about things they don’t know anything about.”

But she feels that the time spent on reading is necessary. Teaching the concept of captions, she told me, was an important first step in helping her students understand the difference between fiction, which generally doesn’t have captions, and nonfiction. Captions also provide informa­tion in a more manageable format than lengthy paragraphs, which struggling readers like her students may find overwhelming.

Some teachers question the whole idea of trying to teach reading comprehension as a set of discrete skills. For most, though, it’s simply the water they’ve been swimming in, so universal and taken for granted they don’t question or even notice it. It’s not about test scores; it’s just the way to teach kids to read. And if kids don’t seem to be getting it, the solution is to double down, through middle school, if necessary.

But there’s a conundrum at the heart of these efforts: despite many hours of practice and an enormous expenditure of resources, American students’ reading abilities have shown little improvement over more than twenty years, with about two-thirds of students consistently scor­ing below the “proficient” level. Most fourth-graders aren’t actually ready to progress from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Writing scores are even worse: about three-quarters of eighth-and twelfth-graders score below proficient. International tests have shown that our literacy levels are falling, for both children and adults.

“We seem to be declining as other systems improve,” a federal official who oversees the administration of international tests has observed. “There is a lot to be concerned about.”

Table of Contents

Part 1 The Way We Teach Now: All You Need Is Skills

Chapter 1 The Water They've Been Swimming In 3

Chapter 2 A Problem Hiding in Plain Sight 24

Chapter 3 Everything Was Surprising and Novel 45

Chapter 4 The Reading Wars 64

Chapter 5 Unbalanced Literacy 82

Chapter 6 Billions for Education Reform, but Barely a Cent for Knowledge 104

Part 2 How We Got Here: The History Behind the Content-Free Curriculum

Chapter 7 Emile Meets the Common Core 129

Chapter 8 Politics and the Quest for Content 150

Part 3 How We Can Change: Creating and Delivering Content-Focused Curriculum

Chapter 9 The Common Core: New Life for Knowledge, or Another Nail in Its Coffin? 171

Chapter 10 No More Jackpot Standards 194

Chapter 11 Don't Forget to Write 217

Chapter 12 Scaling Up: Can It Be Done? 243

Epilogue 260

Acknowledgments 265

Notes 271

Index 309

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