Readers of Academic Questions are savvy enough to be skeptical of the higher-order skills that professors and administrators emphasize when they declare the goals of their practice: critical thinking, problem solving, collaborative learning, etc. We have heard for decades these “cross-disciplinary skills” intoned by the higher-ed establishment as if they marked an unquestionable step beyond the old ways of instilling domain knowledge. What is memorizing the outcome of every major Civil War battle compared to acquiring the infinitely applicable skill of “thinking historically”? Why teach the specifics of Hamlet and Macbeth and Lear when you can train students to submit any literary content they encounter to critical theory? And why choose one content over any other? An English major can hone his interpretative knack on pop culture as easily as he can on the classics. The object doesn’t matter, only the cognitive talents of the free and independent interpreter.
We’ve heard it all before, many times, and we know how vacuous and pompous it is—and disappointing in its outcomes, too. The cognitive turn is supposed to have produced a more sophisticated, analytical undergraduate, but we may take the findings of Academically Adrift as decisive on this question. In that large study, the critical thinking project announced so confidently in the ‘90s and ‘00s broke down humiliatingly for some of the very best colleges and universities. Those institutions pledged to send eager incisive minds into the world, but the fact was that American undergraduates typically made meager gains in intellectual skills from freshman to senior year. We were right to mistrust the heralds of critical thinking.
Readers of Academic Questions may not realize, however, that higher-order skills in higher education have a complement in lower education. It begins in elementary school with the teaching of reading and goes under the name “reading comprehension strategies” (or some close variant). The pitfalls of that approach, and the unfortunate popularity of them, are the subject of this book, The Knowledge Gap, by education journalist Natalie Wexler. The premise of the approach, Wexler explains in the first pages, is that students must “learn to read” before they can “read to learn.” The skills of reading comprehension must be developed first, which is to say that the conscious act of reading, irrespective of what is being read, must be the focus of the instruction. Once students have mastered reading techniques and learned to identify textual elements such as paragraph breaks and conclusions per se, they may proceed to history, science, literature, and civics.
And what are those techniques and identifications, exactly? Wexler opens with a dispiriting illustration. She visits a charter school in Washington D.C. and enters a room in which first graders follow along as the teacher aims to initiate them into “the mysteries of reading.” The object of the lesson isn’t very mysterious, though: captions. The teacher wants them to recognize what a caption is, what purpose it serves, and how it relates to other elements in the text. Wexler admires the teacher, a Princeton grad who runs an efficient classroom, but she can’t help noticing that the presentation doesn’t seem to be working. The method is to draw the caption out of context, to raise it into a distinct object and ask the kids to conceptualize and describe it—in other words, critical thinking. If she examines the concrete content of the caption, it is only for a moment so that students can recognize it as an example of how all captions function.
“What is a caption?” she poses at the start. A girl calls it a label, and the teacher responds, “What kind of a label?” A boy answers that it’s a label that describes things, to which the teacher says, “What kinds of things? Does it tell us the author or the title?”
Note how the teacher directs the discussion toward generalities and away from the specific meaning of the caption at hand. She wants to get at kinds, not particulars. The kids, however, push in the opposite direction. The teacher has selected a caption to a photo in a book about sharks, which evokes from one of them, “Oooh! What’s he eating? Oh my God! Is it a fish?” The teacher grows impatient, but the kids can’t help caring more about the things in the photographs than they do about the textual nature of the captions beside them, some of which are nothing more than tags (e.g. “sea animal”). They crave realities; she stresses formalities. She—or the people who designed the lesson plan on captions—assumes that kids learn how to read captions by lifting captions out of context, by reflecting upon them as if each child were a little Socrates stepping back and rationalizing his way to a higher understanding. It doesn’t occur to her that the best way to learn how to read captions is, precisely, by reading a lot of them, keeping them in context and focusing on the concrete details they and the attached photos render. In the process, as the examples piled up, kids would absorb the role of captions half-consciously and the teacher wouldn’t have to devote precious time to dull exercises. By stressing the content of many individual captions and the knowledge they purvey—that’s how kids acquire “caption-awareness.” They acquire more knowledge, too, and have more fun along the way.
But nearly the entire lower-ed establishment is enamored of the abstract skills approach. “It’s simply the water they’ve been swimming in,” Wexler says, “so universal and taken for granted that they don’t even notice it” (8-9). She watches with regret as a third-grade teacher “began by asking about the ‘text features’ of an article on the early domestication of animals” and soon turned to “the author’s argument,” asking no questions about the actual subject matter (118). Such teachers turn reading into a mechanical process (find the main idea, make inferences, monitor yourself as you read . . .) and then wonder why reading scores have stalled for four decades in spite of massive funding and reading-focused legislation such as No Child Left Behind. They regard the emphasis on knowledge at the elementary level as a soul-killing boot camp of memorizing facts. No well-trained teacher thinks differently, Wexler reports: “One fundamental pedagogical precept that most budding teachers do learn is that they should spend as little time as possible imparting factual information” (49). Once you start highlighting knowledge, too, you sound like you’re prescribing what teachers must teach, as well as losing the child-centered focus favored by progressive educators (who dominate the schools of education).
Wexler compiles data proving the ineffectiveness of the skills approach, along with scientific findings such as the well-known baseball study. In that experiment, two sets of young students read a passage and answered comprehension questions about it. The groups were divided beforehand into stronger readers and weaker readers. But there was an added factor as well: the weaker readers knew something about baseball, the stronger readers didn’t. The passage selected was, you may guess, about baseball. When the results came in, the weaker readers scored higher than the stronger ones. The conclusion was clear: background knowledge is a crucial factor in reading comprehension. Furthermore, better reading skills can’t make up the deficit.
This is the truth on which E. D. Hirsch has based his educational program for forty years, which has been institutionalized as the Core Knowledge Foundation, a curriculum provider and staunch advocate of knowledge-rich elementary and middle school education. (I serve on the board of CKF.) Wexler profiles Hirsch and his University of Virginia colleague Daniel Willingham, a prominent cognitive psychologist who explains to teachers why their skills pedagogy doesn’t work. She devotes long passages to classrooms and schools that have adopted the Core Knowledge curriculum, contrasting the excitement and learning of them to the drudgery of the skills classroom. CK teachers spend little time on captions and “main ideas.” They talk about mummies and Andrew Jackson. They concentrate on real things, not textual abstractions—and the kids respond. Most importantly for the educators, test scores go up.
So why, then, did a school in Baltimore with strong results drop Core Knowledge when a new principal came in? Why did New York City demote Core Knowledge when Bill de Blasio took over despite a study conducted under Mayor Bloomberg showing a clear advantage for Core Knowledge over other curricula used in city schools?
Wexler offers several answers. One, decision-makers don’t want to come off as too dictatorial about content, nor do funders, and so they keep their distance from curricular matters. Curriculum choices lead to tense diversity questions from which politicians have learned to stay away. Some teachers, too, fear knowledge-rich curricula because they realize they are unprepared to teach them. For many, Core Knowledge and E. D. Hirsch are simply exotic references outside mainstream thought. Finally, Wexler notes, there is “the mistaken perception that he’s [Hirsch] a right-winger” (155).
All of those explanations play a part, but that last remark pinpoints the disappointing side of The Knowledge Gap. Wexler nicely presents the failings, but when she turns to fixes, the analysis stalls. Wexler is a skilled reporter who renders classroom scenes vividly and interviews key figures in the knowledge curriculum world from David Coleman (once leader of Common Core and now head of College Board) to David Steiner (former head of education for the State of New York and ex-dean of Hunter College school of education, the main supplier of teachers to New York City) to Willingham and various education entrepreneurs. She recognizes the errors of skills education and acknowledges the false and sentimental appeal of child-centered pedagogies such as the highly popular Balanced Literacy program of Lucy Calkins (which Wexler criticizes vigorously).
But Wexler is a solid liberal, someone who can say with no hesitation, “Research has shown that all kids benefit from attending diverse schools” (210), and then back it up with a citation from National Public Radio. Her liberalism also shows clearly in her reconstruction of the 1990s debates over the National History Standards in which Lynne Cheney is the unambiguous villain, as well as her insistence that Hirsch is not a conservative. This latter assertion is not quite accurate, however. Hirsch is certainly a political liberal, but he’s not an education liberal. He described himself in 2009 as follows: I am a political liberal, but once I recognized the relative inertness and stability of the shared background knowledge students need to master reading and writing, I was forced to become an educational conservative. (The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, 16)
I am a political liberal, but once I recognized the relative inertness and stability of the shared background knowledge students need to master reading and writing, I was forced to become an educational conservative. (The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, 16)
This statement might be enough to turn educators off, but in truth to lean right in matters of education in no way conflicts with left-leaning politics. A conservative curriculum promotes the most important goal of old-school progressivism, namely, class mobility. The sad irony of American public schooling is that progressive education fails the lower-middle and working classes, locking them into inferior stations, while conservative education gives their children the tools to join the middle class and up, that is, to perform well on standardized tests and attend good colleges. We might say that Hirsch’s disappointment is that conservatives such as William Bennett loved his work and progressives in the ed schools shunned it.
The situation is a tricky one for a liberal journalist who discerns well the bankruptcy of leftist practices in the schools. Wexler criticizes the removal of concrete content from the classroom with superb clarity. She identifies most satisfactorily the phony intellectualism of the rationale. Here is a paragraph from late in the book that lays bare the inflated abstraction taking place: In a fifth-grade unit on Westward Expansion, for example, teachers aren’t supposed to tell kids, “The question we’re going to write about today is how the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 led to settlers moving west.” Instead, they’re advised to say, “Historians write about relationships between events because the past will always have an impact on what unfolds in the future.” Students are encouraged to consider generalities like “what historians might care about that is special to history” . . . a directive that is so broad as to be almost meaningless. (232)
In a fifth-grade unit on Westward Expansion, for example, teachers aren’t supposed to tell kids, “The question we’re going to write about today is how the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 led to settlers moving west.” Instead, they’re advised to say, “Historians write about relationships between events because the past will always have an impact on what unfolds in the future.” Students are encouraged to consider generalities like “what historians might care about that is special to history” . . . a directive that is so broad as to be almost meaningless. (232)
That instructors believe the what-do-historians-think point is an advance on what-happened-with-the-Erie-Canal point shows how deeply the skills bias runs.
But Ms. Wexler cannot take the next step, which is to acknowledge that only a strong dose of conservatism into the education system can curb the errors of it. The progressives are correct on this score. As soon as you insert a knowledge requirement into the classroom, you must address sticky questions of choice: which knowledge is best? Which traditions are most valuable? Which books should be read? Should all students read the same books? (Hirsch’s answer is “Yes!”)
In other words, core knowledge means less multiculturalism, less diversity. To skirt that inconvenient truth, Wexler speaks at times as if any knowledge-rich curriculum will do. She praises any lesson that digs deep into a subject matter. She even judges Hirsch’s compilation of a list of items that make up cultural literacy “his greatest misstep” (152). But not compiling a list is unworkable. A core has to be identified. Hirsch tied his list to the things a person needs to know in order to read the New York Times profitably (for instance, knowing what an editorial means when it mentions “Achilles heel”). For the purpose of helping disadvantaged kids, then, one must select some cultural ingredients over others. But that necessity makes Wexler nervous. If someone said, “Black children need exposure to classical music a lot more than they need discussions of hip-hop,” she would try to find some way out of that either-or. Liberals always prefer this route, sensing rightly that the minute you make a distinction you slide toward the right side of the spectrum.
Liberalism is in a bind. It wants to have it both ways, or all ways. In education, liberalism wants diversity and inclusion in the curriculum, but it demands that every child acquire the knowledge they need to do well in U.S. history, freshman comp, and political science courses in college, whose syllabi give core-knowledge trained kids an advantage. It praises schools that are “culturally-relevant” to the kids who attend them, but knows that most college teachers don’t bother with that. It aspires to a fair meritocracy, but condemns group discrepancies in achievement. It doesn’t like to prescribe reading lists, but knows that many students read books in school that are a waste of time. The problem with liberalism is not that it misconstrues the purposes of education. It is that liberals cannot take a stand for what they know is right.