The Girl With the Pearl Earring Altered

We Have a Major Problem.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we have a major problem. Our education system is an incoherent hodgepodge of asinine theories, and the result is squandering millions of lives of potential.

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today…we might well have viewed it as an act of war,” the National Commission on Excellence in Education noted back in 1983.

40 years later, little has changed. Untold billions have been spent in an attempt to narrow the achievement gap, but – like the war on drugs, the war on poverty, and so many other well-intentioned initiatives – we have little to show for it except a giant bill (to be paid by the very children it failed, ironically).

To illustrate the problem, education journalist Natalie Wexler does a brilliant exercise in The Knowledge Gap. She asks adults to “find the main idea” of the following passage. Go ahead, try it:

Much depended on…the two overnight batsmen. But this duo perished either side of lunch–the latter a little unfortunate to be adjudged leg-before–and with Andrew Symonds, too, being shown the dreaded finger off an inside edge, the inevitable beckoned, bar the pyrotechnics of Michael Clarke and the ninth wicket. Clarke clinically cut and drove to 10 fours in 134-ball 81, before he stepped out to Kumble to present an easy stumping to Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

Natalie Wexler, The Knowledge Gap

What you just read wasn’t gibberish, but a passage about the beloved British game of cricket. However, if you don’t know anything about cricket, you probably assumed she was inventing phrases to trick you. I certainly did.

This is a perfect exemplification of the problem: schools are obsessed with skills (like reading comprehension) rather than knowledge, sometimes actually disdaining the latter.

You may have excellent reading comprehension “skills,” but without knowledge of the subject, your ability to use those skills is basically nil.

Honestly, how much did you “comprehend”? Could you find the main idea? Could you succinctly summarize the passage, making sure you’re including all the important bits? Could you improve it without removing anything significant?

Probably not.

Now imagine a similar exercise, only the passage is about an inning of baseball. Because of your preexisting knowledge, you could probably comprehend it, find the main idea, summarize it, or waltz with it, if the occasion called for it.

Researchers Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie performed this exact study with 64 students in 7th and 8th grade. Each one was tested for their reading level, then given a text/corresponding questions about an inning of baseball.

The result was shocking. The students who knew the most about baseball got the highest scores, NOT the strongest readers!

“In fact,” Wexler points out, summarizing the study, “the bad readers who knew a lot about baseball outperformed the good readers who didn’t.”

What does this tell us?

Knowledge gives birth to skills, NOT the other way around.

I was tutoring a student yesterday, and we were reading the introduction to Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Hamilton is obsessed with the ancient Greeks, writing:

People often speak of ‘the Greek miracle.’ What the phrase tries to express is the new birth of the world with the awakening of Greece…In the earliest Greek poets, a new point of view dawned, never dreamed of in the world before them, but never to leave in the world after them…

Edith Hamilton, Mythology

I’ve been teaching this student for years, so we were able to have a fascinating discussion in which he continued developing skills that are emphasized – but not appropriately taught – in the Common Core and other common curricula.

From critical thinking to identifying author’s bias, textual evidence, point of view, inference…we covered so much! But it was in the context of, “Well, the ancient Egyptians were building pyramids 2500 years before Homer wrote The Iliad. So how did the world not “awaken” until ancient Greece? What’s her background? Etc.”

Simply put: knowledge gives birth to skills, not the other way around. I’ll talk more about this in a sec.

The Achievement/Opportunity Gap May Persist Because of the Focus on Skills Over Knowledge

We all know someone born into poverty who became extremely successful later in life. 99% of the time – if not more – they credit their love of reading with changing their life.

Guess what reading builds? Knowledge.

Before I provide some additional proof about the importance of knowledge in narrowing the achievement/opportunity gap, I want to make it clear that I do not agree with a national curriculum, or even a state-mandated one. I solely give the following example to highlight the importance of knowledge.

Similar to the baseball study, Wexler paraphrases another important research experiment – this one done unwittingly and at the national level (by the way, the French experiment is described in greater detail in E.D. Hirsch’s Why Knowledge Matters, Harvard Education Press):

Until 1989, all French schools were required to adhere to a detailed, content-focused national curriculum, and many children began their education as early as age two at free preschools. These schools…served as powerful equalizers. If a child from a low-income family started preschool at age two, by age ten, she would catch up to a highly advantaged child who started at age four – and would be ahead of a middle-class child who started at age three…

Then the government passed a law requiring all elementary schools to abandon the curriculum and adopt a more American approach…[which focused on] skills like ‘critical thinking’ and ‘learning how to learn’…The results were dramatic. Between 1987 and 2007, achievement levels decreased sharply. The drop was the greatest among the neediest students.

Natalie Wexler, The Knowledge Gap

Essentially, if everyone is learning vacuous “skills” at school, the kids with higher-educated/wealthier parents fare better because their parents supplement their knowledge.

There countless other challenges that impoverished students face, but withholding knowledge from the kids who need it most only provides another obstacle.

Private Schools Aren’t Much Better (Really)

Private schools don’t adhere to a standardized curriculum, so I can’t speak for them all. However, I work with students from some of the best private schools in the country – we’re talking about grade schools with tuition in the range of $40,000 a year – and I sometimes think my third grade neighbor who attends public school knows more than they do.

To illustrate the point, allow me to share a conversation I had with a 10th grade student last weekend. In my defense, I haven’t worked with him for long.

Seeing that he’s doing a unit on Russia this week, Japan next week, and China the week after, I couldn’t help but ask, “NAME, you guys are bouncing all over the place. How much of this are you actually remembering?”

“A lot of it, I think,” he confidently replied.

“Do you mind if I ask you some questions?”

Knowing he studied the Protestant Reformation about a month before, I asked, “Who is the figure most closely associated with the Protestant Reformation?” Crickets. “He wrote 95 theses…” I added. Crickets. “Martin Luther,” I finally said.

“Oh, yeah!”

“And when did he live?”

“1200’s?”

“1500’s,” I said gently.

Fair enough. Martin Luther isn’t exactly A-list. But they did the Israeli-Palestinian conflict right before that (because that makes sense – not), so I decided to see what he remembered there.

“When was the modern state of Israel founded?” I asked.

“Our teacher doesn’t really focus on dates.”

No shit. “1700’s, 1800’s, 1900’s?” I prompted.

“1700’s?”

“1948. OK, so if you think Israel was founded in the 1700’s, when do you think the Holocaust was?”

“1700’s?”

May I remind you, this is a kid who now has a car and attends one of the best private schools in Dallas.

People say that only math and science matter these days, but I DEEPLY disagree. I’m not diminishing the importance of math or science, but I have blissfully glided through the past 15 years without anything other than restaurant-tipping and inserting-numbers-into-my-taxes math.

On the other hand, when was the last day you didn’t read or discuss current events? How can you weigh in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if you think the Holocaust happened in the 1700’s? How can you discuss anything in the world if you don’t know history?

If public schools focus “skills over knowledge,” giving students only disconnected snippets from history so that they can glean the “main idea” from a passage, private schools have an equal but opposite problem.

They tend to categorize history into patterns, doing units on “revolutions” or “oppression,” where they bounce from the Bolsheviks to the founding fathers to the Industrial Revolution in the span of a week. No wonder kids are confused AF. That’s the “equal” part of the problem, a focus on “patterns” over knowledge.

The “opposite” problem is that they actually do talk about history, but it’s so much and so all-over-the-place that students have all breadth and no depth.

I kid you not, I was working with a different 10th grader one year, and during their lesson on China, the reading said something along the lines of, “Chairman Mao was leader of the Communist Party in China in the 20th century. His ‘Great Leap Forward’ was met with mixed success…” The next paragraph discussed China’s rich history of basket weaving.

UMMMMM…This would be like saying, “Hitler was leader of the Nazi Party in Germany in the 20th century, though the Third Reich was of mixed success. By the way, Germany has really pretty castles.”

For fuck’s sake. No mention of the 65 million deaths that can be laid directly at the feet of Chairman Mao. I don’t know if it’s because most of our textbooks are printed in China, but I’ve noticed a pattern of explicitly ignoring genocide by communists. Stalin (est. 9-20 million deaths – a lot of these numbers depend on whether you count people who starved to death as a result of their policies) and Pol Pot (1.5-2 million deaths) are similarly glossed over.

This article is getting crazy long, but let’s just say the problems on the English side are pretty similar in public and private schools. Both have largely embraced the theories of Lucy Calkins and the Columbia Teachers College, which emphasize “free writing” and not hurting kids’ feelings with grammar. There are actually some good aspects of Lucy Calkins’ curriculum, but the widespread adoption has created a generation of students who can go two pages without using a period.

Kids Like Learning…Knowledge, That Is

I still remember the first time I learned about Pompeii. I was in 5th grade and utterly transfixed by the idea that a city had been preserved, locked in time, for nearly 2,000 years. It was part of an interdepartmental unit on ancient history, where the English, history, math, and science teachers all worked together to bring the ancient world to life. It was amazing. Not only did we acquire knowledge for its own sake, but we developed and improved countless skills. From vocabulary to close reading, perspective on how good our own lives are, mathematical proportions (in building a giant cyclops from a paper-sized drawing)…the list goes on!

But those skills were built on a foundation of knowledge.

Throughout The Knowledge Gap, Wexler follows a traditional public school and one that has adopted the Core Knowledge curriculum. The latter, as the name implies, is a curriculum that emphasizes the importance of knowledge. (P.S. I’m not 100% sold on the Core Knowledge curriculum, but do see it as a vast improvement).

As Wexler writes, teachers at the Core Knowledge schools would say, “You’ve got to come into my classroom; you’ve got to see what’s happening…” She continues:

It turned out kids really liked it. And parents loved it. Suddenly, they were having amazing conversations with their kids about what they’d learned in school…By 2017, when I visited Washoe, there were lots of stories circulating about kids like the third-grader whose babysitter, an eleventh-grader, was writing a paper on Greek mythology. The third-grader challenged her babysitter’s facts. When they resorted to Google to settle the dispute, it turned out the third grader was right.

Natalie Wexler, The Knowledge Gap

In case you’re still under the “skills over knowledge” spell, thinking, “Who cares if the third grader knew more about mythology than the 11th grader? When will knowing mythology ever help them in the real world?” Allow me to remind you that real-world skills are built on knowledge, so without the mythology, they will likely be left with neither skills nor knowledge.

And if standardized test scores are your thing, the knowledge-rich curriculum wins there, too:

A privately funded $2.4 million pilot [tested] a content-rich approach in ten New York City schools…When the results were released in 2012, they showed that students in the Core Knowledge schools scored significantly higher on reading comprehension tests compared to those in the comparison school. They also came out ahead on tests of social studies and science knowledge.”

Natalie Wexler, The Knowledge Gap

The Solution (And Obstacles to Reaching It)

I know I’ve quoted Wexler at length, but that’s because she has decades of research under her belt and perfectly verbalizes so many of my own issues with America’s education system. Seriously, read The Knowledge Gap if you have time. If you don’t, hopefully this helps you grasp the main points!

One of the biggest obstacles to transitioning to a knowledge-based curriculum is that teachers, like most professionals, resent outsiders coming in and telling them how to do their job. This is completely understandable, especially considering how much B.S. teachers already have to deal with from their admins, etc.

But the problem runs deeper. Wexler writes:

[Proponents of a knowledge-based curriculum] will also need to convince many teachers and administrators that focusing on knowledge is worthwhile; schools of education in this country and some others have long trained teachers to reject that idea as unnecessary and stultifying. Why engage in the boring memorization of facts when you can just look them up?…But skipping the step of building knowledge doesn’t work. The ability to think critically–like the ability to understand what you read–can’t be taught directly and in the abstract. It’s inextricably linked to how much knowledge you have about the situation at hand.

So what can we do? Personally, I’ll be supplementing my son’s education with heaping spoonfuls of knowledge, and doing whatever I can to help others gain greater access to engaging, knowledge-boosting content.

As Wexler writes: “Teaching disconnected comprehension skills boosts neither comprehension nor reading scores. It’s just empty calories. In effect, kids are clamoring for broccoli and spinach while adults insist on a steady diet of donuts.”

It’s insane.


Featured Image Credit: TheBonafidesa/Modified/Etsy