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.