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The Knowledge Gap—A Review

Let me lead you through a portal created in the basement of some secretive and sinister government laboratory and into the Educational Upside Down.

The Educational Upside Down is a parallel dimension where elementary school children are captivated by street signs and bored rigid by myths and tales of heroes. It is a dimension where early readers work out the relationships between the sounds of English and the letters that represent these sounds largely by being immersed in anodyne, specially written story books. Yet, weirdly, it is also a dimension where children have to be explicitly taught ‘comprehension strategies’ to understand what they read, such as activating their prior knowledge or deciding which sentence is the most important, and then must practice these strategies for the greater part of the school day. This is a dimension where knowledge of the world—that same prior knowledge that needs activating—is the last thing that it would occur to anyone to actually teach children in schools.

The Educational Upside Down is frightening and surreal, not merely because it denies all common sense, but because it embraces the precise opposite of what the available scientific evidence shows to be effective teaching. Although some fortunate children will pick up letter-sound relationships through immersion, most do need to be explicitly taught. In contrast, comprehension is chiefly a natural process. Once the squiggles on the page have been decoded, the most important factor in understanding them is the vocabulary and background knowledge a child possesses. Comprehension strategies can provide a limited boost, but they will never make up for a lack of knowledge and they do not need endless, repetitive, monotonous, soul-destroying practice.

I would like to be able to claim this dimension is a mirror image of the world we live in, but according to Natalie Wexler it is the world we live in. Or at least it is the reality of American classrooms today; a reality that, through America’s vast soft power, leaches out into every corner of the globe. Wexler’s new book, The Knowledge Gap: The hidden causes of America’s broken education system—and how to fix it, charts its strange landscape, animating it with stories from classrooms that Wexler visited while trying to diagnose the cause of this topsy-turvy state of affairs.

Wexler gathers together the usual suspects—standardised tests, politicians, hubristic billionaires and education faculties—and demonstrates that they all shoulder some of the responsibility.
Standardised tests have been essential to exposing widespread educational malpractice and the shocking achievement gaps between more and less fortunate students. However, they have also had the effect of narrowing the curriculum. Reading tests that draw their passages from no particular subject area, coupled with official guidance from the National Reading Panel, have caused teachers to focus on the mechanics of answering the questions. Hence all the drills involving divining which ideas in a passage are the most important. As Wexler notes, when teachers in Denver tried out these strategies in their own reading, they found them, “annoying and distracting.”

Such tests are, in fact, largely tests of general knowledge. If you know about cricket, and you can decode the words on the page, then you will understand a sports report that includes the phrase, “Clarke clinically cut and drove 10 fours.” If you don’t know about cricket then you won’t understand it, no matter how many times you try and figure out what is important about the text. All texts are like that, even though we are usually not conscious of the knowledge we bring to bear. We therefore need to teach children the kind of basic, general knowledge that they need in order to access the types of writing they will encounter in school and throughout their lives as citizens in a democracy.

So let’s make a list of what that knowledge is, shall we? Well, good luck. Anyone who seeks to write it down will be assailed by the politics of both the Left and the Right, and fighting a war on two fronts is never a good idea. The Left will complain about a canon where the thoughts and deeds of white European men dominate, whereas the Right will complain about supposedly politically correct attempts to introduce a range of different perspectives. Whatever you do, you cannot win. So it’s easier to be vague; to not specify anything. And so that’s what U.S. curriculum documents tend to do.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter because we can forget the curriculum because Silicon Valley billionaire philanthropists have a better plan. After all, who needs to know anything in the age of Google? Instead, let’s use data to figure out who the best teachers are so that schools can fire the bad ones. Better still, by pressing the magic buttons on electronic devices, children can enjoy a personalised learning experience.

Sadly, none of this works. You cannot outsource your brain to Google because knowledge is in constant, implicit use during any kind of intellectual work. Teachers turn out to be pretty hard to evaluate in any reliable way and electronic devices are distractions that shatter the communal nature of school, and much learning along with it.

And yet, perhaps, these are the minor problems of the system. There is an old saying among educationalists that the widest street in the world is West 120th Street in Manhattan, because it separates Columbia University from Columbia University’s Teachers College. Early American reformers such as Horace Mann deliberately recruited women to the teaching profession due to the romantic belief that they would be more nurturing and less costly to employ. These recruits were offered an inferior education to their university peers and, over time, this resulted in a profession that was, according to Wexler, “more female, less prestigious, less academic, and more focused on skills.” This divide has never fully closed, so ideas that are commonplace in cognitive science have failed to have much impact on teacher education.

Instead, the prevailing ideology of teacher education is still ‘progressive education’ as developed in the early 20th Century. Although sharing a name, it has little to do with progressive politics, and has seen its fullest expression in the private schools of America. Wexler describes it as the belief that “education should be a natural, pleasurable process and that learning or (heaven forefend) memorizing is inherently boring and soul-destroying.” In line with their views on education being a natural process, progressive educators prioritise giving children choices, allowing them to decide what to read and write about. They believe that history and science are “developmentally inappropriate” for elementary schools students. Progressive education’s relationship to the science of learning parallels the relationship of herbalism or homeopathy to the science of medicine. As is the case with alternative medicine, progressive education attracts followers from across the political spectrum, not just the Left.

As a teacher who has worked in England and Australia, I know this ideology well, despite the many differences between these systems and the American one Wexler describes, and believe it is the fundamental fulcrum on which it all turns. It is a belief in the progressive education ideology, however implicit, that holds back genuine progress. Education academics and bureaucrats espouse it and teachers internalise it, whether any of them can name its foundational thinkers or not.

What can be done? Plenty have tried and failed to root out the bad ideas in our education systems. In America, there have been waves of public panic that have subsided with little noticeable change. Common Core was once the great hope, and yet Wexler describes how it has often led to the further calcification of comprehension strategies, despite the best of intentions to boost the role of knowledge in the curriculum.

What about bottom-up initiatives? Wexler documents many successful attempts to introduce a more knowledge-focused curriculum that were then overturned as teachers left the district or principals moved on. In one instance, a principal replaced a knowledge-focused curriculum associated with high standardised test scores with a curriculum she was more familiar with from a previous job in a different school.

Wexler has no magic bullet. She has “yet to see an American school that consistently combines a focus on content with an instructional method that fully exploits the potential of writing to build knowledge and critical thinking abilities for every child.” Perhaps reforming tests would be an effective lever, given the influence testing exerts on schools. Maybe we could focus on assessing children’s grasp of letter-sound relationships in the early grades—as England does with its phonics check. Maybe we could follow the lead of Louisiana, and reform standardised reading tests so that they are based on a specific body of knowledge taught in the preceding years rather than knowledge selected at random. None of this will be achieved without resistance.

I would add another possible way out. Those social media tycoons who have so conspicuously failed to disrupt and rebuild education for the better, despite their philanthropic dollars, may have unwittingly sparked a different revolution. As a teacher, I am no longer dependent upon information filtered through my school leadership or local district, with all the ideological spin that involves. Through Twitter, Facebook and online blogs, I can now talk directly with a teacher on the other side of the world, sharing the findings of cognitive science and grappling with common problems.

Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap is not just a scholarly work. It pulsates with vivid detail as it winds its way through the strange terrain of the Educational Upside Down. Anyone who seeks to understand the quixotic state of educational ideas in American schools and beyond should place it on the top of their summer reading list. And while you are reading, any thoughts on how to turn the education world the right way up again, and keep it that way, would be gratefully received.

 

Greg Ashman is a teacher and a Ph.D. student at the University of New South Wales. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent any institution. Follow him on Twitter @greg_ashman

Comments

  1. My experience growing up in public schools, and even a charter school as one of those schools managed to become one, is that the focus is pushing these kids out the door. Effort isn’t put into trying to educate for the subject, just the test. Tests aren’t cumulative as a result of this. What’s more, discipline is set by the wayside. To avoid rabid parents, teachers simply let misbehaving students get away with a variety of things. I saw students in my own classes randomly get up in the middle of class and start singing, talking while the teacher is lecturing, and so forth. Discipline is dangerous as it leads to potential conflicts which the teachers are in no capacity paid enough to handle.

    Yet, what disgusts me the most is that age-old excuse. “They come from troubled families.” Guess who else comes from a troubled family? Me. My childhood could best be described as going to school, not really learning anything, being bullied relentlessly, sitting by kids I could barely bring myself to call friends, coming home, eating quickly, locking myself in my room while my parents continue to fight as they do 24/7-365, doing any homework I might have due the next day and playing video games into the night. None of that stopped me from graduating, going to college and getting myself a useless degree like the rest of my peers. The fact of the matter is, either you are brain-dead, or not trying, but school in the 21st century is a joke. There have been people out there far worse off then myself who outdid me in school.

    The problem isn’t a lack of a good home, it’s the lack of a good spine. Our educators have to be willing to remind these kids and their pathetic excuses for parents (exceptions notwithstanding) that in life, you have to be able to work. It doesn’t have to be fun work, it doesn’t have to be with people you like and your home life and other matters don’t have to be in order just for you to do it. How these kids will hold down jobs is beyond me.

    Instead of making stupid excuses born of misplaced empathy, non-educators need to be willing to support educators in pursuing this endeavor. Allow teachers to be the masters of their classroom. Furthermore, we need to see a great push to teach for the subject, not the test. If we do the first, the second will come naturally. However, I’m not holding my breath.

  2. The author writes, “the Right will complain about supposedly politically correct attempts to introduce a range of different perspectives.”
    Really? First of all the right is non-existent in US education. it was pushed out many years ago. So no need for the author to show balance here by blaming the right as well as the left.
    Education is controlled by the leftist, yes PC, identity politics ideology that will not tolerate deviation from their party line. This in combination with teachers unions has condemned students to virtual illiteracy.
    Johanis is right not to hold his breath for any improvement. The left does not improve, it only pushes its power. Heck it does not even believe in the search for truth because it already “owns” the truth.
    Homeschooling in the US, some good private schools (usually religious) and some good charter schools are the only answers. But the unions make sure school choice will not come to the US, so parents must pay taxes for public schools while double paying for private or home schooling.
    Regarding higher ed, there is a sea change towards skills-based learning rather than leftist mind-numbing indoctrination. Technical, trade & speciality schools along with boot camps will displace a great many traditional universities & colleges.
    And the US may yet be saved.

  3. Of course the assumption in this article is that there actually needs to be a public policy on education. Leave it to the market and we would soon have a thriving education system… What’s more we would also have a system that actually caters for the fact that not everyone is capable of academic study, and that the majority of children really only need to learn to read, write and do sums.
    I am intrigued that America, the so-called land of free enterprise, is so entranced by the idea of public schools.Whereas in Britain and Australia private schools are culturally very significant, in America they barely seem to get a mention.

  4. We shouldn’t be too surprised that a society which has a poor idea of what a human being is would have confusing and contradictory ideas of what constitutes an education. And as the faddish obsession with the chimera called “critical thinking” suggests, we do not seem to have a coherent understanding of what actually constitutes thinking. Critical thinking is to thinking what social justice is to justice.

  5. Both the book and the review seem to echo the knowledge presented in ‘Seven Myths About Education’- a wonderfully short, but concise, book by Daisy Christodoulou that details exactly how the progressive education system is deeply misguided in its lack of understanding about cognitive science and the way we all learn. It’s about methodology and curriculum- in order to gain knowledge on any subject, you first need a whole substructure of supporting knowledge schema to make sense of what you are learning. Knowledge itself acts as a massive aid to learning, as once you have an underlying structure of knowledge, new knowledge is more easily absorbed by ‘adhering to the surface’ of what you already know, through the process of comparing and contrasting the new to the old.

    We used to think that it was just Maths that possessed this pyramidal structure. That you couldn’t learn differential equations unless you first practised quadratics. Of course, science behaves in the same way, but must possess a looser structure, surely? English, History, Art, Drama- surely not? The truth was that educators and academics were simply taking for granted what they already knew in a very systematic ‘group think’ of expertise-induced blindness. This tendency made all the more potent, once one understands that if you are in the top 10%, or even top 25% of the cognitive spectrum, then of course you are going to underrate or devalue the necessity of learning your times table. You were never one of the kids that desperately needed this form of rote learning because, to you, everything came easier. Little wonder that in the modern world, whilst most can add, a solid quarter of the population couldn’t tell you what 10% of 7900 is.

    But the truth is that almost every type of knowledge possesses this underlying structure- it’s just in many cases it’s less pyramidal and, in most instances, it’s invisible to recall. Our brain edits out most of the laborious process of acquiring knowledge, whilst retaining the knowledge itself for future use. It’s why you can maintain a fairly stable position in your lane when driving, whilst learner drivers veer all over the place, but if asked, you probably couldn’t articulate how you do it. It’s why when you are trying to teach a loved one how to use a computer, or a piece of software that they are unfamiliar with, you often get frustrated- because you are only focusing on the bits that you found difficult, or at the edge of your competency, instead of focusing on the basics.

    The basic flaw in education is Rousseau, that enlightenment cuckoo- no better illustrated by the fact that many teacher persist in the incorrect belief that it is better for a child to discover knowledge, than have it imparted by an expert. This can never match the efficiency of learning that is so important for kids who don’t come from knowledge-rich home environments. Here’s a hint- if the guy who is inspiring you on how to educate kids, abandoned his own children to the tender mercies of French state-run orphanages, you should probably discard every single one of his ideas. I recently came across a piece which detailed his belief that the Enlightenment was heading from contract to status, rather than the reverse. Seems he didn’t just get education wrong.

    In shortly under two weeks, on the 22nd of August, we will receive yet more proof that highly structured, knowledge-intensive learning, with strict enforcement of low-level discipline works. The Michaela Community School in London, headed by Katherine Birbalsingh, will be getting its first set of GCSE results. Hopefully, kids from poor, multi-ethnic, inner city backgrounds, who have to bike to school every day past knife gangs, will drastically outperform kids from far wealthier, more stable and safe backgrounds, in a shock that will send ripples through the progressive educational establishment. I say hopefully, because it is only by recognising the failures of the past and the present, that we have any hope of improving the future. In recent years, British education has quietly recognised that they need to provide boys with reading material that is more likely to engage them- hopefully Michaela can help to induce an even more profound improvement.

  6. Your point about the top 10% of learners not being particularly affected by ‘‘progressive’’ education fads because they have the ability to understand things without as much instuction is very important. This applies in other situations as well. Thus, the top 10% will often not oppose measures that on their face appear to make things easier for the less well off, but instead actually are designed to keep the poor as clients of the State. We in the upper-middle classes can usually afford the extra cost of more regulation or the jump in tax that goes along with increased government intereference in life. But the less-advantaged are left worse off in particular if supposedly better of in general.

  7. Geary, thanks for reminding me of Katherine Birbalsingh. I saw her on Dave Rubin, and was ever so impressed. Unfortunately I am convinced that innovative, truly caring people such as her are suffocated in the world of education. Thank goodness she was able to start her own school.
    She reminds me of another brave, clear thinker in a totally different field who is suffocated out of the mainstream, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who understands the Muslim world so well, but is rarely allowed to speak at a university.

  8. Sadly, we have known this for many many years. E.D. Hirsch has been promoting a more content-heavy curriculum through his Core Knowledge foundation for decades. I avoid reading about Education because there is a lot of spinning wheels. Too many people are pushing fancy solutions and trendy diagnosis. The Ed industry is thoroughly infiltrated by profit-seeking entities parasitic on our frustration. For too long we assume that the solution to all of society’s problems is through better education when all along it has been the opposite. If you want to close racial gaps in education you have to first close income and wealth gaps. You can’t integrate society by first integrating schools. You have to integrate the neighborhoods first.

    The most frustrating thing about watching my kids go through my local public schools is the lack of focus on content. I go to the bookstore and surf the web and I am awash in amazing content. Awesomely illustrated science books, great documentaries, you name it. The world is full of interesting content and kids have a thirst for knowledge. Older kids have a thirst for debate. Schools can be a place where children focus on all that interesting content. The skills will come, but first we need to focus on the content.

  9. Katherine Birbalsingh is a strong proponent of E. D. Hirsch. I still think that cognitive science will win out in the end- it’s just a matter of how much potential gets wasted in the meantime.

  10. footnote:
    Lest we forget that Angola and the Congo benefited financially from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Although controversial, nonetheless, the fact remains that those tribes along the Atlantic coast of Africa possessed a social structure which allowed the slave trade to exist and thrive. When Britain, France, and the United States abolished the slave trade, those tribes who sold their brothers and sisters for profit suffered too.

    Truth be told, I didn’t learn how to read in school. My mother taught me at home with a program called, “Hooked on Phonics.” Born in the US, my mom told me that, once upon a time, children were taught phonetically how to read in school; however, this practice was abandoned in the 1960’s (someone can fact check that for me). Frustrated by my inability to learn in class, my mother reassured me that reading phonetically was a natural and effective way of learning to read, at least for those children who can hear.

    I learned a new word today!
    adj. Exceedingly idealistic; unrealistic and impractical.

    PS. I’m extremely upset that in most Canadian school, children are not longer taught cursive handwriting. I realize that typing quickly has the superior advantage in later learning; however, I would be upset if I never received the compliment from my English teacher, “I would recognize that scrawl anywhere.”

    Thank you for the article.

  11. For those unfamiliar with the remarkable Katherine Birbalsingh here’s a link to her discussion with Dave Rubin.

  12. [T]he prevailing ideology of teacher education is still ‘progressive education’ as developed in the early 20th Century. Although sharing a name, it has little to do with progressive politics...

    Yeah…

    You say that, and yet I can think of at least one massive assumption that Progressives and “educationalists” both share.

  13. Yeah Geary you are correct in that boys aren’t being offered the right texts to read - I think I prefer to put it that way, rather than saying that boys need more choice, simply because the biggest obstacle to that choice is availability.

    In other words, I could drop a male student in a random English classroom, give him the choice to read whatever he likes, and he could still struggle to find something engaging, through no fault of his own.
    Your aunt’s experience is sadly common.

    You already know some of my general views on gender, and while I do believe that much gendered behaviour is constructed, I do believe there are genuine, biological differences and frankly don’t see this topic as subjective.

    So generally, boys like ‘how-to’ books, information, facts - non-fiction - more than girls. Girls prefer fiction, which involves more empathizing, a skill that girls are better at than boys. I hesitate to say this here, but English as a discipline is a ‘feminized’ discipline. There are many reasonable explanations for how this has happened, primarily career choice and teacher specialty choice, but it is a fact, exacerbated by the fact that we English teachers - good at English, by definition - were also schooled in this environment.

    On a positive note, I can tell you unequivocally that any library I walk into in the TDSB contains books featuring: “war, planes, cars, engineering feats, outdoor survival, hunting, fishing or containing heroic male figures”, or the high school equivalent of that male-focused reading list. Librarians here are more aware of the research, on average, than their English teacher peers. Most English teachers have a least heard of these concerns, and the entire younger generation is well aware of them.

    Likewise, I just don’t see puppet-type activity in all but a few inneffectual classrooms. Perhaps this is a national / regional difference, but the majority of teaching practices I see, at least in the disciplines that I teach, are positive and knowledgeable. We generally have a quality education system here in Ontario.

    It’s worth noting that different disciplines often have vastly different teaching styles and pedagogical philosophies. In English, skills training is a more nebulous concept than it is in math, science, phys-ed, art, and so on. But than again, so too is ‘knowledge’. So what ‘knowledge’ do you prioritize? As I wrote in my last comment, my priority is vocabulary, which is developed best through reading done for pleasure, in combination with explicit training of vocabulary and the vocabulary skills needed to better understand. So I prioritize both.

    I’ve still got a few weeks of summer vacation left, so watch that video and read that article. Profoundly skeptical of the ‘science’ of IQ though.

  14. jerjapan, I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 60s when the US public school system was the envy of the world. There were no teachers unions back then. Today I am developing an edtech company and am quite familiar with LA schools in the inner city. The acute deterioration of LA and all US public schools is obvious to all. Perhaps unions are an overall force for good, but all that I know is that their takeover of US public schools certainly did not prevent these schools descending into places where little is learned and violence is prevalent. The unions make it nearly impossible to fire even dangerous teachers and it appears their agendas do not make students the main priority. The fact that these unions are run by far left, often socialists, causes them to have ideological agendas. Note the fast growing Red4Ed movement, it is a very hard left ideologically driven movement among educators in the US.
    There are studies too numerous to list showing the overwhelming leftist beliefs of all faculties across the US.
    “The political registration of full-time, Ph.D.-holding professors in top-tier liberal arts colleges is overwhelmingly Democratic,” Langbert divulged in his NAS article. “Indeed, faculty political affiliations at 39 percent of the colleges in my sample are Republican free – having zero Republicans.”
    Even the leftist InsideHigherEducation shows how skewed it is, but tries to sugercoat it by insisting that having few or no conservatives is still an unbiased environment.
    There are also numerous studies showing the political contributions of professors go overwhelmingly to the Democrat party.
    In the US this is no longer argued, the left simply says it makes no difference because they are capable of leaving all their personal beliefs outside the classroom. This is just a little hard to believe when their antifa, BLM brownshirts come for anyone who dares to speak against the prevailing leftist ideology.
    Conservative intellectuals must bring their own security details to campus if they are even invited to speak. Nearly every school will tell them they cannot insure their safety.
    From all I understand this is common throughout the Western world.

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