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Michael Petrilli: Knowledge is Power


New York City can be proud of the progress detailed in the new analysis by Douglas Ready, Thomas Hatch, et al., especially when it comes to big gains in its high school graduation rate. But stubborn achievement gaps—and sky-high failure rates—persist. What should Gotham’s next mayor do to attack these?

At the risk of sounding silver-bullet-ish, let me propose one obvious candidate: boost kids’ knowledge. While that may seem obvious, a focus on building students’ actual nuts-and-bolts, foundational knowledge, especially in the early grades, would be nothing short of revolutionary.

As E.D. Hirsch Jr. has been explaining for thirty years, America’s education system has had an irrational allergy to knowledge at least since the days of John Dewey. Yet the careful, purposeful, systemic development of knowledge is almost surely the antidote to students’ reading failures—and the key to their future success.

In their analysis, Ready and Hatch illustrate that there exists a strong relationship between low marks on a student’s third-grade English language arts exam and her likelihood of dropping out of high school a decade or so later. This is consistent with previous research that shows verbal ability to be the strongest predictor of innumerable other student outcomes, including whether she will attend or complete college and her lifetime earnings.

Yet many students—those from low-income backgrounds, in particular—struggle with reading. Why? Thankfully, it’s no longer because they cannot decode the English language. The federal Reading First initiative of the early 2000s—based on solid research promoted by the National Reading Panel—helped bring the “reading wars” to an end and helped millions of students get sound instruction in the early grades in phonics, phonemic awareness, and the other elements of scientifically based reading. The Common Core State Standards in English language arts continue this strong focus on early reading.

Once children learn to decode words and sentences, however, their reading ability becomes largely synonymous with their content knowledge. As Hirsch has shown, it’s knowledge about the world—history, geography, science, art, music, literature, and more—that allows students to make sense of what they are reading. Absent that capacity to “make sense” of those sentences and paragraphs—and articles, stories, and books—they will never be fluent readers and will never do well on assessments of English language arts.

What New York City needs, then, is an all-hands-on-deck crusade to infuse content into the elementary school curriculum. Thankfully, it need not start from scratch. Hirsch’s own Core Knowledge Foundation has been developing a top-notch English language arts curriculum that is showing tremendous results in a New York City pilot program. It is also being rolled out as part of New York State’s voluntary Common Core–aligned curriculum. This positions Gotham to be the epicenter of a new revolution in knowledge and, thereby, in reading—but only if educators seize the opportunity.

That’s where the mayor comes in. It’s going to take strong leadership to encourage New York’s 800-odd elementary schools to give Core Knowledge—or another content-rich curriculum like it—a hard look. Many educators will continue to balk at a focus on content knowledge. They’ll want to stick with pure “skills.” But if Gotham schools are ever to make significant gains on the new Common Core–aligned assessments—and more importantly, if they want to help their charges gain confidence in their reading and go on to graduate from high school—embracing the knowledge imperative is essential.

Michael J. Petrilli is executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where he blogs at Flypaper. He can be followed at @michaelpetrilli.