The media blind spot hiding a big problem in American classrooms

How media coverage has missed a key aspect of classroom learning — and some concrete steps education reporters can take to do better.

By Natalie Wexler

Six years ago, I thought I knew a lot about education. I’d been writing about the topic for several years. And yet I knew nothing about a fundamental and pervasive problem that was undermining the decades-long effort to improve educational outcomes, especially for disadvantaged students: the widespread assumption that teaching kids reading comprehension “skills and strategies” is more important than building their knowledge in subjects like history and science.

I stumbled upon this problem myself only after a friend who is a veteran educator visited the charter elementary school whose board I served on. She mentioned that the school wasn’t even trying to teach kids content — a fact I’d somehow missed in my many visits to classrooms there.

I was far from alone. Recently there’s been some excellent media coverage about the lack of phonics instruction in elementary schools, including APM Reports’ 2018 Hard Words and other examples. But, as I’ve written before, journalists have paid far less attention to the focus on comprehension “skills” at the expense of content — an approach that lies at the heart of the stubborn gap in test scores between students at the top and bottom of the socioeconomic scale.

As you’ll see, I have some theories about why that’s happened — and some concrete suggestions for reporters who are interested in trying to rectify the situation.

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Wexler wrote an initial column about missing media coverage this past spring.

As I write in my new book, The Knowledge Gap, most educators aren’t aware of the problem themselves — and therefore unlikely to alert journalists to its existence. Despite scientific evidence clearly demonstrating the importance of building knowledge, literacy gurus and textbook publishers still advocate foregrounding supposed generally applicable skills like “finding the main idea” of a passage or “making inferences.” This approach intensified after 2001, thanks to No Child Left Behind’s focus on reading and math.

The Common Core literacy standards were intended to move schools towards content-focused curriculum. But, as I’ve written in the past, that message never reached most educators. Subjects that could build knowledge, like social studies and science, have been marginalized or eliminated, especially in high-poverty schools, in an effort to boost test scores.

Instead, the near-absence of content from the elementary curriculum has only served to reinforce existing inequality. Students who have more general knowledge have a better chance of understanding whatever text they encounter, because they’re able to retrieve more information about the topic from long-term memory. That leaves more space in working memory for comprehension. They’re also better able to absorb and retain information, because knowledge — like Velcro — sticks best to other related knowledge.

Children whose parents are better educated pick up a lot of knowledge at home, which enables them to keep acquiring more knowledge through their reading year after year. Meanwhile, those with less educated parents, who also tend to be lower-income, start out with less knowledge. And — if they don’t acquire knowledge at school — those kids fall farther and farther behind.

Perhaps because they tend to come from a highly educated milieu, journalists have largely overlooked the gaps in knowledge that affect many students.

— Natalie Wexler

Journalists have certainly covered topics like the failure of efforts to narrow the so-called achievement gap, the fraudulent maneuvers undertaken to boost graduation rates, and the dearth of low-income students of color in gifted-and-talented programs and selective high schools. But they have generally overlooked a major underlying reason for all of those problems and many others: the failure to build kids’ knowledge, beginning in elementary school.

There have been some notable exceptions. In September 2017, The Baltimore Sun ran a story on the city’s plans to cut down on reading and math instruction and instead make more time for subjects like science and social studies. In March of this year, the Hechinger Report ran a piece on an effort by that district to “systematically close gaps in what students learn” through the adoption of a new, more coherent curriculum called Wit & Wisdom. Covering similar developments in Detroit, Ed Week noted in 2018 that the district had settled on a curriculum, EL K-5 Language Arts, that would have students read entire books rather than excerpts. And earlier this year, Chalkbeat reported that kids were more engaged by the new curriculum, providing scenes of fourth-graders practically jumping out of their seats to answer questions about loyalists and patriots during the American Revolution.

Almost none of this coverage, however, has explained how the skills-focused approach previously used in those districts — and still in use in most others — actually prevents students from developing the knowledge that enables comprehension and ends up further disadvantaging children from less educated families.

In some situations, media coverage has inadvertently amplified misperceptions rooted in a lack of understanding of how comprehension works. For example, The 2017 Sun story quoted a principal who worried that the focus on content would lead to lower test scores and reported that a member of the state board of education warned that “working toward a broader curriculum can’t come at the expense of literacy.” In fact, if implemented well, a content-focused curriculum will ultimately boost both test scores and literacy by enabling students to understand what they read. The 2018 Ed Week story described how Detroit’s curriculum aims to engage students in reading that “will be about more than comprehension”—meaning, according to the article, it would require them to do things like compare themes in a novel and a poem. It’s not clear why making those kinds of connections is different from, or better than, “comprehension.”

Even the most in-depth treatment of the reading comprehension issue to date — Emily Hanford’s 2014 radio documentary about a teacher-led movement in Washoe County, Nevada, that had even struggling readers delving into complex text — fell short of addressing the need for coherent, knowledge-building curriculum. That element was missing from the APM story largely because teachers in the district hadn’t yet discovered the need for it. By the time I went to Washoe to research my book a few years later, they had.

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Read more about media coverage of how schools teach reading, featuring APM Report’s Emily Hanford.

Here are a few theories about why the issue has been so widely overlooked:

No one has been talking about this. Journalists tend to cover what is being discussed by others — policymakers, reformers, educators. With rare exceptions, those groups have focused on other issues: school choice, teacher quality, personalized learning, etc.

Most educators don’t realize there’s an alternative approach. Many elementary teachers don’t question the focus on comprehension skills. It’s what they’ve been trained to do, what their instructional materials and periodic assessments are grounded in, and what their supervisors expect. If educators don’t see the problem, how can they alert reporters?

Educated adults may not recognize how much academic knowledge and vocabulary some children lack. Thanks in part to the so-called Reading Wars of the 1990s, there’s some public awareness of the case for phonics and the resistance to it among some educators. But, perhaps because they tend to come from a highly educated milieu, dyslexia activists and education journalists have largely overlooked the gaps in knowledge that affect many students.

Journalists may associate the topic with conservative politics. When I bring up the topic I sometimes hear, “Oh, the old ‘knowledge versus skills’ debate” — when in fact, since comprehension skills can’t be taught directly, it’s not an “either-or” question. Or journalists may assume, mistakenly, that advocates of building knowledge are just pushing a conservative cultural agenda.

In some situations, media coverage has inadvertently amplified misperceptions. — Natalie Wexler

This is a problem with ramifications throughout American education and beyond, and it desperately needs more coverage. The first step is for journalists to understand the theory and practice of the skills-focused approach to comprehension and how it conflicts with science. My book might be a good starting place; I would also recommend books and articles by cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham.

The next step is to venture into classrooms — both those using the standard approach and, if you can find them, those using one of several new elementary curricula that focus on building knowledge: Core Knowledge Language Arts, used in various schools across the country; EL K-5 Language Arts, adopted by Detroit; Wit & Wisdom, adopted by Baltimore; Bookworms K-5 Reading and Writing, in use in schools in Delaware, Georgia, and other places; and ARC Core. There are also districts in Tennessee and Louisiana that are doing what sounds like exciting work.

But even if you find a school that is using one of these curricula or something like them, observing can be tricky: I’ve found some schools say they’re building knowledge but still focus primarily on skills.

The process of change is bumpy but rewarding — and fascinating to watch. We need more education writers focusing on this issue both in districts where change is happening and in the far greater number of districts where it is not.

SELECTED SOURCES

APM Reports: Why aren’t kids being taught to read?

Hechinger Report: The Knowledge Map helps Baltimore City schools find gaps in curriculum.

Education Week: Will New Curricula Jump-Start a Renaissance in Detroit?

Baltimore Sun: Baltimore schools aim to broaden offerings beyond math, reading.

Chalkbeat Detroit: Months into the adoption of a new curriculum in Detroit, teachers deal with growing pains — and victories.

RELATED COLUMNS

Hard reporting: Why reading went under the radar for so long – and what one reporter is aiming to do about it.

Writing better stories about students with disabilities.

Natalie Wexler is a senior contributor on education at forbes.com and has published two books, one as a co-author, on education.

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