British government leaders are embracing the ideas of American academics who argue that schools need to focus more on building knowledge to improve outcomes for low-income students. Why isn’t that happening here?
In a recent speech on anti-poverty initiatives, British Prime Minister David Cameron cited the work of University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, who argues that expanding the knowledge base of disadvantaged students is key to improving their reading comprehension.
Cameron also mentioned three or four other American academics in his speech. But it’s Willingham and his UVA colleague E.D. Hirsch, Jr., who have really captured the imagination of British politicians, or at least those in the Conservative Party. Hirsch began arguing 30 years ago that the gap in performance between wealthier students on the one hand and poor and minority ones on the other is essentially a gap in knowledge. More recently, Willingham and other cognitive scientists have buttressed that theory with research.
Building knowledge is key to narrowing the gap in reading comprehension
The argument put forward by Hirsch and Willingham, essentially, is this: The ability to understand what we read is highly dependent on whether we have the relevant vocabulary, which is equivalent to having relevant background knowledge. If you’re reading an advanced text about cellular biology and you don’t know much about the subject, you’re going to have a hard time understanding the text. And texts that look simple to adults can be impenetrable to young children for the same reason—especially to low-income children, who generally have far smaller vocabularies than their more affluent peers.
Students with wealthier, more educated parents enter school with a broader base of knowledge, enabling them to access yet more knowledge through reading. Elementary schools—in the United States and, it appears, in Britain—then compound the problem by focusing on reading comprehension strategies, like “making inferences” and “finding the main idea,” rather than on building knowledge in subjects like history or science. That’s especially true for schools serving low-income students, where the entire day is often spent on reading and math.
Teachers select books that lend themselves to practicing the comprehension strategy of the week rather than systematically teaching kids about topics like the digestive system or the American Revolution. Students skip from a book on one subject to a book on another, rarely focusing on their meaning and never spending enough time on a single topic to absorb any knowledge and the vocabulary that goes with it.
The theory is that if students become adept at strategies like “finding the main idea,” they’ll be able to apply them to any text. But all too often, the result is that low-income students never acquire the knowledge they need to do well on standardized reading tests, not to mention in high school and beyond. In order to truly boost reading comprehension, schools need to adopt coherent, content-based curricula that start in preschool and build logically from one topic to the next.
Why have these ideas caught on in Britain, but not here?
Most education reformers, government officials, and politicians in the United States are unfamiliar with these ideas–or at least don’t talk about them. But about eight years ago, a Conservative Member of Parliament named Nick Gibb came across Hirsch’s books and began recommending them to his colleagues. Soon thereafter, another Tory MP—Michael Gove, who served as Secretary of State for Education from 2010 to 2014—took up the cause. And when the Cameron government announced an overhaul of the British national curriculum in 2011, “Hirsch was writ large across it,” according to The Guardian.
Gove’s interest in Hirsch apparently led him to Willingham. In a 2012 speech, he cited the cognitive scientist as “one of the biggest influences on my thinking about education reform.” And that, presumably, led to the shout-out in Cameron’s speech last week, crediting Willingham and others with showing how the accumulation of knowledge enables us to take in new information.
Why hasn’t Arne Duncan—or the new acting US Secretary of Education, John King—given these home-grown education theories a similar shout-out? Or better yet, why hasn’t Barack Obama? Why do Hirsch and Willingham’s ideas have to travel across the Atlantic to get this kind of recognition when UVA is a mere 120 miles from Washington DC?
One likely reason is that the British education system is far more centralized than ours. Our federal government can’t directly legislate a national curriculum. That power resides in the states and individual school districts.
Still, high-level federal officials could use their bully pulpit to spread the word about the importance of building knowledge, especially for low-income students. They’ve certainly used that pulpit to promote other more dubious education initiatives, like linking teacher evaluations to test scores—and used federal money as leverage to get states to adopt them.
Many mistakenly see a knowledge focus as a conservative approach
Another possible reason the message about knowledge hasn’t caught on in the US is that many here perceive a knowledge-focused approach as inherently conservative. That’s true in Britain as well, where it’s been embraced by the Conservative Party. But for the most part, even American conservatives seem unaware of the issue. (Of course, a British Conservative isn’t the same as an American conservative—Cameron’s speech last week actually included the words, “I support the welfare state.”)
Why the association between knowledge and conservatism? Probably because when people think of teaching knowledge, they conjure images of rote memorization of dates and other facts, perhaps reinforced by the rap of a ruler. But of course, it doesn’t have to be that way—and in fact it shouldn’t. Kids actually get excited about acquiring knowledge, if it’s presented in a way that makes it engaging and accessible.
Not long ago I was in a first-grade classroom at a DC charter school, Center City Brightwood, that follows a curriculum based on Hirsch’s ideas in the early grades. The kids—all low-income and minority—were learning about Mesopotamia by pretending to paddle down the Tigris and Euphrates to Babylon. Along the way, the students were learning words like “reservoir” and “fertile.” They were lapping it up.
There’s nothing conservative about wanting low-income kids to acquire the kind of knowledge that will enable them to succeed in life. Hirsch, for example, has described himself as “practically a socialist.”
The British advocates of knowledge, from what I can tell, have made a few missteps. Cameron’s speech mentions an initiative directed at secondary schools, but to be effective the knowledge focus really needs to start at the elementary level. Gove has given the impression that teaching knowledge is all about rote memorization, when of course that’s not the case. And the emphasis seems to be on testing, when it really should be on getting teachers to understand why it’s important to build knowledge and what the best techniques are for doing that.
But in Britain, they’re at least talking about the problem, which is an essential first step towards solving it. It’s about time American politicians and education reformers did the same.