Monday, March 26, 2007

The Knowledge Deficit

I read with some dismay the article, "Failing Schools See a Solution in Longer Day," in today's New York Times. The opening paragraph:

States and school districts nationwide are moving to lengthen the day at struggling schools, spurred by grim test results suggesting that more than 10,000 schools are likely to be declared failing under federal law next year.
It was some consolation that the various states are paying some attention to areas in greatest need and evaluation of the initial efforts. It was also some relief that one of the reasons for lengthening the day was to restore some balance to the curriculum:

Pressed by the demands of the law [No Child Left Behind], school officials who support longer days say that much of the regular day must concentrate on test preparation. With extra hours, they say, they can devote more time to test readiness, if needed, and teach subjects that have increasingly been dropped from the curriculum, like history, art, drama.
I think that dropping subjects like history, art, and drama is the way to worsen, not improve, reading skills. I was very persuaded by the ideas set forth by E.D. Hirsch in The Knowledge Deficit. In the very earliest grades, reading skills consist primarily of decoding words. Our schools do a decent job of that. In later grades, though, reading skills consist primarily of comprehension--understanding the meaning of what is read--on a wide range of topics. Our schools don't do a particularly good job of that. The review of the book in Publishers Weekly summarizes Hirsch's thesis very well:

Education theorist Hirsch decries a dominant "Romantic" pedagogy that disparages factual knowledge and emphasizes reading comprehension "strategies"—summarizing, identifying themes, drawing inferences—that children can deploy on any text. Such formal skills, he argues, are easily acquired; what kids really need is a broad background knowledge of history, science and culture to help them assimilate new vocabulary and understand more advanced readings. "Process-oriented" methods that apply reading comprehension drills to "vapid" texts waste time and slow kids' progress, Hirsch contends, and should be replaced with a more traditional, "knowledge-oriented" academic approach with a rich factual content.

In one part of the book, Hirsch describes the reading comprehension problem as follows. Suppose that you are confronted with a new paragraph in which you know the meaning of 90 percent of the words. You can reasonably be expected to guess the meaning of the other 10 percent from the context, and then it is possible for you to evaluate what's being presented in the whole paragraph. Suppose now that you are confronted with a new paragraph in which you know the meaning of only 70 percent of the words. It is much less likely that you will be able to guess the meaning of a full 30 percent of the words in the paragraph well enough to understand the ideas being presented. So, according to this theory, you make kids better readers if you expand their vocabularies, so that they are more likely to be in the 90/10 position than the 70/30 position (or worse).

Doing process-oriented reading drills on third-rate fiction is a less effective tool for teaching reading than listening to a good piece of non-fiction. Where do kids get that good non-fiction? History class. Art class. Science class. Even music class and drama class. Schools are not lacking for time--they are lacking for content.


Tom said...

Andrew, I would merely add that schools with integrated writing programs have much greater test success than those that don't. Following on to your reasoning, if children are then required to write about what they've learned, the vocabulary that they need to express themselves becomes part of their (written) lexicon, then expanding their ability to understand further work.

This is particularly important in science, as most teachers require writing in history but few do in science...leaving out a major source of interesting factual material for many kids.

Rob Lawrence said...

This is why IB programs have expanded across the united states. There is an emphasis on acquisition of the base skills while targeting the higher level reasoning skills. In a basic way, IB programs highlight the value of what is widely known as the Socratic method - students cannot "slide-by" when forced to read, comprehend, and then defend a position based upon written material. The problem is that programs like IB don't "teach to the test" effectively; what they do well is to encourage and nourish better thinking. That higher level skill set is not part of the testing metric on typical NCLB evaluation forms. So, to "make the grade" schools will overemphasis the ability to perform on standardized tests. The shortfall of that approach is in failing to see that life is not standardized.

Anonymous said...

Andrew, you should read Freakonomics by Steven Levitt. The apples don’t fall far from the tree. With or without education, those who want to learn will. How is forcing students to learn any different from the ‘brainwashing’ of the 60’s Soviet Russia, North Korea, or Cuba? If you say subject content, you misunderstand the definition of brainwashing.

Fritz said...

Have you had the pleasure of your child attending a public school? While my children attended private schools, the curriculum is driven by the public system and we had to make-up for that. The major difference is discipline.

Standardized tests do measure cognitive skills. A recent national study indicated that splinter skills had improved, but skill sets that lead to higher development were marginal. That indicates that students were being taught to the test. The schools need to adjust the curriculum in a way that makes sure the students are leaning underlying reason for the mechanics, not just the mechanics. Standardized tests are the proper method to measure knowledge and abilities, that is why teachers don't like them, it quantifies teaching performance. A standardized test must be reliable and valid in what it is measuring. Criticism of standardized tests is a trope used to make excuses for bad education methods that lead to poor results.

rws1st said...

If you are interested in this topic I would highly recomend everything at this site:

And for applications of the material to recent new articles:

For instance an excellent critique of the idea that you can fill in the gaps by using context if you are a begining reader:

hacker said...

Schools are not lacking for time--they are lacking for content.

Schools are lacking for a lot of things. Since a certain Scotsman taught university in Edinburgh in the late 18th Century, we've known how to fix it.

Eagle1 said...

Seems to me that history, art and science are easy to put on the "endangered" list because they can be so controversial. History is under attack for various alleged biases, some science opposed for religious reasons (evolution) or even political reasons (rational discussion of global warming anyone?) and we've all seen that art has become a battlefront (is teaching about the art in the Sistine Chapel encouraging religion? Does Islam forbid depictions of people in its art? Can Muslim student be forced to study art that includes human portraits?)

Why should a public school system have to deal with such issues when there is a safer path? Especially since that path may include financial incentives for taking it?

So the schools say, "Let the kids read pablum and pass them on. Teach to the test and get pay raises if they do well."

Teaching them to think is too hard. Especially in a system in which, as Charles Murray points out, 50% of the kids are below average.

Most private schools have a different metric: "How many of our kids get into Dartmouth, Yale, Princeton, etc." Can you imagine Choate or Exeter bragging that 80% of their kids read "at grade level?"

In short, the incentives are all wrong in most public education.