How Common Core Can Help in the Battle of Skills vs. Knowledge
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STANDARDIZED tests are commonly blamed for narrowing the school curriculum to reading and math. That’s one reason Congress is considering changes in the law that could lead states to put less emphasis on test scores. But even if we abolished standardized tests tomorrow, a majority of elementary schools would continue to pay scant attention to subjects like history and science.
Consider this: In 1977, 25 years before No Child Left Behind ushered in the era of high-stakes testing, elementary school teachers spent only about 50 minutes a day on science and social studies combined. True, in 2012, they spent even less time on those subjects — but only by about 10 minutes.
The root cause of today’s narrow elementary curriculum isn’t testing, although that has exacerbated the trend. It’s a longstanding pedagogical notion that the best way to teach kids reading comprehension is by giving them skills — strategies like “finding the main idea” — rather than instilling knowledge about things like the Civil War or human biology.
Many elementary students spend hours practicing skills-based strategies, reading a book about zebras one day and a story about wizards the next, flitting among subjects.
That’s a problem for all students: Spending hours finding the main idea can get pretty boring. But it’s a particular problem for low-income students, because they’re the least likely to acquire the kind of knowledge they need at home.
Skills are important. However, as the cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham and others have demonstrated, you can’t improve reading comprehension just by practicing free-floating skills. For students to understand what they’re reading, they need relevant background knowledge and vocabulary.
The education theorist E. D. Hirsch Jr. has argued for 30 years that elementary schools need to focus on knowledge. Mr. Hirsch’s ideas were long dismissed as encouraging a reactionary cultural tradition, but they are now beginning to command new respect among education reformers. And that’s largely because of the new Common Core education standards, currently in effect in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia.
While critics blame the Common Core for further narrowing curriculums, the authors of the standards actually saw them as a tool to counteract that trend. They even included language stressing the importance of “building knowledge systematically.”
But that language has gone largely unnoticed. The standards themselves — and the Common Core-aligned tests that many students nationwide first took this past spring — don’t specify what knowledge students should learn in each grade, because they’re designed to be used across the country. And in the United States, a school’s curriculum is a matter of local control. Most educators, guided by the standards alone, have continued to focus on skills.
As Mr. Willingham has argued, all reading comprehension tests are really “knowledge tests in disguise.” Rather than assessing kids on material they’ve actually been taught, the tests give them passages and questions on a seemingly random assortment of topics. The more general knowledge a student has, the better her chances.
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