Reading & Literacy

New Audits Help Schools Rethink Students’ Reading ‘Diets’

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 05, 2019 5 min read
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Kale and iceberg lettuce both meet the formal definition of a leafy green, but that’s where the similarities end. A new curriculum project is trying to help districts make similar distinctions in the diet of reading materials their students get: Are they complex and maybe a bit challenging—or bland, inoffensive, and not particularly nutritious?

Johns Hopkins University’s Institute for Education Policy has been developing its curriculum-mapping project to be sure that over their K-12 careers, students are exposed to enough high-quality literature—as well as nonfiction that illuminates core topics within science, history, and social studies—to give them sufficient background knowledge.

The basic idea of auditing what students learn isn’t a particularly new one. Dozens of consulting groups offer services promising insights into what students actually study, but few do so with an eye to a specific sequence of knowledge that young readers need to make sense of unfamiliar texts. The Johns Hopkins project grows from a burgeoning body of cognitive-science research backing up the notion that flat reading scores reflect not weak skills but uneven access to content.

“The premise of all of this is that the achievement gap is really a knowledge gap,” said David Steiner, the institute’s executive director. “We really start where the question of alignment stops and say: What are we teaching? What is in the curriculum? Does it really build year after year or is it a scatter diagram of random topics?”

Mapping Content

The Hopkins project also comes as another sign of the growing interest in the quality of the everyday learning materials used in classrooms across the nation.

After decades of experimenting with school structure and teacher-incentive programs, K-12 power players from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on down have grown interested in the promise of curriculum, drawn in part by research suggesting that some materials help students learn more than others.

Curriculum reform is never without controversy and has in a sense been one of the Achilles’ heels of K-12 education for the last century, as education traditionalists and progressives battled over whether to prioritize content or skills in successive waves of policy. The academic standards movement of the past two decades in effect called a truce to that debate: Standards laid out basic end goals for student learning but left it to districts and often to individual teachers to select the actual content of lessons.

And that’s where the idea of auditing comes in. Sequencing content can be done in a coherent way, or it can be done in a slapdash fashion, according to Steiner.

Developed with the help of the advocacy group Chiefs for Change, the Knowledge Map tool, as it’s called, is largely informed by the work of E.D. Hirsch Jr., a nationally known proponent of building student knowledge through content. It draws on Hirsch’s most recent Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, to which Hopkins officials have added phonics in the earliest grades, an emphasis on cultural relevancy, and children’s literature.

How It Works

The tool sets out broad domains—like American literature—and then topics (Native American, realism, dystopia) and subtopics (Langston Hughes, Sandra Cisneros). Then trained teachers go through text by text to see what’s covered in which grades, where topics are reinforced, and where holes or weaknesses lie.

So far, the institute has worked with several districts and at least two states; Hopkins wouldn’t release their names, citing confidentiality. But leaders in Baltimore and Indianapolis agreed to share insights gained from their own audits.

Worthwhile Texts. When Indianapolis put three commonly used textbook series to the test, it discovered that too many of the core texts that anchored each themed unit were aimed at getting students to exercise a skill, like finding the main idea, rather than focusing on exposing students to knowledge, said Aleesia Johnson, the district’s interim superintendent.

“Oftentimes, the stories were pretty short,” she said. “We needed to have more high-quality anchor texts from authentic authors, not just ones that are sort of just written for textbooks.”

By contrast, Baltimore’s audit found that most of its anchor readings were of high quality. But the secondary readings were generally weaker, said Janise Lane, the executive director of teaching and learning for the district.

Coherence. As any parent whose children have studied dinosaurs year after year can attest, students often get repeated exposure to certain topics while other key areas go missing. In Indianapolis, readings on American history and geography were especially weak or missing, Johnson said.

The review also helped to identify missed opportunities to connect content disciplines together, Lane noted. Baltimore had a 3rd grade reading unit on oceans, but students didn’t study marine biology in science until the 5th grade.

Cultural Relevance. Both Baltimore and Indianapolis wanted to be sure that the texts reflected the student population. The audits found that Indianapolis’ materials did a good job reflecting its student body overall but didn’t have much representing Asian-American students’ experiences. In Baltimore, the problem wasn’t so much a lack of diverse texts as it was what they emphasized: Students read over and over about the history of slavery and racism but got next to nothing on the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Migration, or the outpouring of black art and culture that shaped the 20th century.

That finding prompted the district to rebalance topics and to craft a new lessons on the history and heritage of Baltimore, not just what’s been portrayed about their city in popular media and in television shows like “The Wire.”

“It got us really thinking about how we build backwards so students have part of the hope and triumphant celebration of the rich culture of Baltimore,” Lane said.

Baltimore’s audit informed its choice of a new English/language arts curriculum last year, while Indianapolis plans to incorporate the findings in its search for a new series in 2020. (It has not yet put out a bid for those materials.)

So far, Hopkins hasn’t made its review frameworks public, and the reviews are available only in English/language arts for a consulting fee. But the group would eventually like to make the tool and the audits public so that all districts can benefit from them, Steiner said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2019 edition of Education Week as New Audits Help Districts Rethink Classroom Readings

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