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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Beyond fat cats on mats: Knowledge closes the learning gap

Teaching phonics is a critical first step in teaching reading, but students need to build knowledge and vocabulary to get from fat cats on mats to Charlotte's Web to . . . everything.

"Students from low-income families made such dramatic gains that their performance on state tests equaled that of children from higher-income families" in reading, math and science, she writes.

Researchers compared the progress of kindergarteners admitted by lottery to nine Colorado schools and those who applied but lost the lottery.

The schools used a curriculum based on the Core Knowledge Sequence, which "immerses children in rich content in history, geography, science, and other subjects, largely through having teachers read texts aloud and lead class discussions," writes Wexler. "Instead of jumping rapidly from one topic to another, students spend several weeks learning about each topic. They also read and write about the content covered in the core curriculum rather than random, unconnected topics."

At schools in middle- to high-income areas, children benefited from acquiring knowledge at school, even though they "were presumably acquiring a fair amount of academic knowledge at home" from their well-educated parents.

At the one school in a low-income area, the benefit of the knowledge-rich curriculum was "truly extraordinary," writes Wexler. It wasn't just reading. "They also got large boosts in math scores and on the state science test given to fifth-graders," eliminating the socioeconomic achievement gap in all three subjects.

Core Knowledge was a pioneer, but there are other curricula that focus on building students' knowledge in history, science and the arts, writes Sarah Schwartz on Education Week. Some include a broad array of topics -- fairytales, continents, Christopher Columbus, Pilgrims and the Fourth of July -- while others "ask students to delve deeply into just a handful of content areas in a year."

It takes time for students to build the background knowledge essential for reading comprehension, writes Robert Pondiscio, a long-time champion of Core Knowledge. But shortcuts don't work.

E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge project is tries to "catalog the background knowledge that literate Americans know so as to democratize it, offering it to those least likely to gain access to it in their homes and daily lives," he writes. This is the "language of power." To deny disadvantaged students access to this knowledge on the grounds that it's too Eurocentric is, Pondiscio writes, "among the greatest and most unforgivable of educational crimes."

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Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith
Apr 16, 2023

A primary years' curriculum with transdisciplinary units of discovery has the advantage of activating pupils in seeking knowledge for themselves, rather than the more purely verbal approach described here; and what literate Americans need to know is what people all over the world need to know, without national limitations.


Apr 13, 2023

No mention of race, which is also the case for another Core Knowledge study I remember seeing. Without race, it's not worth getting fussed over. Also (as the study points out, if not Wexler) the low income group was only 62 kids with lots of male attrition.

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