August 28, 2015


How Common Core Can Help in the Battle of Skills vs. Knowledge (NATALIE WEXLER, AUG. 28, 2015, NY Times)

Skills are important. However, as the cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham and others have demonstrated, you can't improve reading comprehension just by practicing free-floating skills. For students to understand what they're reading, they need relevant background knowledge and vocabulary.

The education theorist E. D. Hirsch Jr. has argued for 30 years that elementary schools need to focus on knowledge. Mr. Hirsch's ideas were long dismissed as encouraging a reactionary cultural tradition, but they are now beginning to command new respect among education reformers. And that's largely because of the new Common Core education standards, currently in effect in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia.

While critics blame the Common Core for further narrowing curriculums, the authors of the standards actually saw them as a tool to counteract that trend. They even included language stressing the importance of "building knowledge systematically."

But that language has gone largely unnoticed. The standards themselves -- and the Common Core-aligned tests that many students nationwide first took this past spring -- don't specify what knowledge students should learn in each grade, because they're designed to be used across the country. And in the United States, a school's curriculum is a matter of local control. Most educators, guided by the standards alone, have continued to focus on skills.

As Mr. Willingham has argued, all reading comprehension tests are really "knowledge tests in disguise." Rather than assessing kids on material they've actually been taught, the tests give them passages and questions on a seemingly random assortment of topics. The more general knowledge a student has, the better her chances.

The old tests, which varied from state to state, were generally easier to game -- for example, by eliminating obviously wrong multiple choice answers. The new tests ask students to read more sophisticated passages and then cite evidence from them in their answers. That's hard to do if you don't have enough knowledge to understand the passages in the first place.

The advantages of a knowledge-rich curriculum aren't just a matter of speculation. A foundation started by Mr. Hirsch in 1986 has developed just such a curriculum, Core Knowledge Language Arts, that is used in elementary schools across the country. A recent pilot program in New York City public schools showed that elementary students in schools that used C.K.L.A. outperformed their peers in reading, science and social studies.

More recently, we've seen evidence that a knowledge-focused curriculum can lead to better results on Common Core-aligned tests, which New York began using two years ago. Two high-performing charter networks in New York City -- Success Academy and Icahn -- both rely on a content-rich approach.

Some charter schools and traditional public school districts across the country have started to retool their approach. New York State has developed a free online curriculum that has been downloaded nearly 20 million times.

More schools may follow suit if scores from the spring tests, set to arrive this fall, plummet, even for many schools that were previously considered high-achieving. But engineering the switch from skills to knowledge will take real effort.

Posted by at August 28, 2015 5:55 AM

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