To Boost Reading, Stop Blaming Teachers and Start Building Knowledge

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For more than a decade, teachers across the United States have been unfairly blamed for our nation’s literacy problems. Test after test shows relatively little growth and large gaps. Want to quickly estimate a child’s reading ability? Just ask for his zip code.

But the root of the problem is not our children’s poverty—it’s the poverty of our ideas, of our high-stakes accountability policies, and of our curricula.

Desperate to rapidly increase reading achievement, policymakers have pushed schools, especially elementary schools, to spend more and more time on reading instruction. But the resources to lengthen the school day or year are rarely available, so time has been robbed from other subjects. A nationally representative survey found that in grades K–3, just 19 minutes a day are devoted to science and a mere 16 minutes to social studies. The situation is not much better in grades 4–6, where just 45 minutes a day are devoted to social studies and science combined. Worse yet: Research indicates that schools serving our neediest students spend even less time on these important—and inspiring—subjects.

It seems obvious to suggest that if you want to get better at something, you should spend more time practicing it. But there’s a paradox at the heart of our efforts to raise reading achievement: When elementary schools take time away from science, social studies, and the arts to dramatically increase time on reading instruction, they are likely to slow children’s growth in reading comprehension. This slowing won’t be apparent right away; it might not be apparent in the elementary grades at all. But in later grades—when students are expected to read historical speeches or science textbooks or biographies of artists—they will struggle.

To understand this paradox, you first have to know that reading comprehension is not a “skill” like riding a bike or throwing a ball. A child does not become a strong reader by learning to sound out words and practicing reading alone (though these are important). Reading comprehension—the ability to make meaning from text—is largely a reflection of a child’s overall education. Good readers tend to know at least a little about a broad range of things. The best way to build a strong reader is with high-quality instruction in science, social studies, and the arts—as well as in reading.

Knowledge, vocabulary, and reading comprehension are intimately intertwined. This is particularly important for disadvantaged students. Think of it like compound interest: If one kindergartner comes to school on day one having heard 30 million more words than her less-fortunate peers (not to mention the advantage of travel, museum trips, and ballet lessons), the “interest” on her knowledge and vocabulary allows her to grow far richer. Her less-fortunate peers fall further behind day after day—unless schools see dramatically increasing all children’s knowledge as their most important task.

With the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), state and district leaders have—for the first time since early this century—the flexibility to incentivize schools to make long-term investments in building academic knowledge. But unless teachers raise their voices—and educate their leaders—about how reading comprehension grows, they and their students will continue to suffer from the reading paradox. All children, but particularly the disadvantaged, deserve to benefit from a knowledge-rich curriculum from the earliest possible moment.

At its heart, the achievement gap is an opportunity-to-learn gap. To close it, teachers need time to collaborate on a grade-by-grade, coherent, knowledge-building curriculum. They also need time for their efforts to bear fruit; the broad foundation of academic knowledge that all students need takes several years of well-coordinated effort to build. To support teachers, policymakers will need to take a careful look at their new assessment and accountability policies under ESSA, asking: Do these policies incentivize schools to patiently invest in building students’ knowledge and vocabulary? Or, do they spur schools to look for quick gains?

To date, policymakers have pursued reforms—like charters and “merit” pay—that have little to do with what children actually learn. Making the acquisition of knowledge a priority has been missing in the press for short-term gains on tests. It’s a powerful lever, hiding in plain sight, which few have thought to pull. But under ESSA, teachers and parents could pressure elected leaders to change that.

The new federal education law provides states the flexibility they need to appropriately value reading test scores, while also ensuring all children get the well-rounded education that leads to strong comprehension. Of course, ESSA also provides the flexibility for states to ignore these issues. It’s up to all of us to ensure that the new freedom is used responsibly—especially to enrich our neediest students and equalize opportunity to learn.

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