The Knowledge Gap
The Hidden Cause of America's Broken Education System--and How to Fix it
The untold story of the root cause of America's education crisis--and the seemingly endless cycle of multigenerational poverty.
It was only after years within the education reform movement that Natalie Wexler stumbled across a hidden explanation for our country's frustrating lack of progress when it comes to providing every child with a quality education. The problem wasn't one of the usual scapegoats: lazy teachers, shoddy facilities, lack of accountability. It was something no one was talking about: the elementary school curriculum's intense focus on decontextualized reading comprehension "skills" at the expense of actual knowledge. In the tradition of Dale Russakoff's The Prize and Dana Goldstein's The Teacher Wars, Wexler brings together history, research, and compelling characters to pull back the curtain on this fundamental flaw in our education system--one that fellow reformers, journalists, and policymakers have long overlooked, and of which the general public, including many parents, remains unaware.
But The Knowledge Gap isn't just a story of what schools have gotten so wrong--it also follows innovative educators who are in the process of shedding their deeply ingrained habits, and describes the rewards that have come along: students who are not only excited to learn but are also acquiring the knowledge and vocabulary that will enable them to succeed. If we truly want to fix our education system and unlock the potential of our neediest children, we have no choice but to pay attention.
In this illuminating study of the philosophies and practices of the American education system, education journalist Wexler (The Writing Revolution) argues that low student test scores result from a mistaken emphasis at the elementary level on context-free reading skills and strategies rather than content-rich curricula that give students "a body of knowledge about the world." Test scores improve and income-related test gaps narrow, Wexler finds, when kids start learning history, science, and social studies in kindergarten. Wexler examines different pieces of the problem, including deficiencies in teacher training (teachers aren't taught the cognitive psychology of how people learn) and the use of ineffective attempted compromises such as balanced literacy (an approach that attempts to "balance" teaching full-word recognition and phonics). Wexler spends a year inside Washington, D.C., classrooms, observing that skills-based, content-averse lessons actually impede learning, while students tackling content-rich Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum's lesson blocks on ancient Mesopotamia, Greek myths, and American history demonstrated enormous vocabularies, high engagement, and the ability to make insightful connections. Wexler presents content-oriented curricula as an obvious remedy that can be embraced by teachers, parents, and administrators who agree that "education is essential if democracy is going to function." This thought-provoking take on curricular reform is well-supported; it's less abrasive and perhaps more persuasive than earlier calls for this kind of reform.