Who’s To Blame for the Knowledge Gap

I’m finishing up The Knowledge Gap by Natalie Wexler. It’s good. Teachers should read it. I won’t go into a long review here because other people have done so more capably than I could, but I do want to offer one veteran teacher’s perspective on where the finger should be pointed, which is a large part of the book.

Wexler does a thorough job of retelling the history of the Reading Wars and how the teaching of reading in our elementary schools has evolved to be skills-driven instead of content-driven. This, Wexler asserts, is a disaster, and one of the main reasons too many kids can’t comprehend text. It turns out that finding the main idea or making inferences aren’t transferable skills; it’s the background knowledge a reader has about a topic that matters. Therefore, teaching comprehension skills is mostly a waste of time. According to Wexler (and others whose work she cites), elementary schools should be in the business of erecting towers of factual information inside the brains of their students, not teaching kids reading strategies such as asking and answering questions, synthesizing, and making connections that only work if they possess enough background knowledge in the first place.

Most elementary teachers are teaching reading skills instead of focusing on knowledge. Wexler investigates why. She lands on a number of different suspects, some of whom deserve far more blame than others. As someone who has been in the classroom since the inception of balanced literacy (I was trained in it my first year of teaching) and who has never been given a content-based reading curriculum, I know where I’d point the finger. What follows is a list of who deserves how much blame for the skills-based approach to the teaching of reading in elementary classrooms that deprives students of the knowledge they need to effectively comprehend texts.

5% Blame: Elementary Teachers

Wexler doesn’t really want to blame teachers for what and how they teach. There are a number of instances in the book where, when describing ineffective classroom practices, she takes care to say that teachers don’t have the authority to teach whatever and however they want. They’re given curriculums and told to use them. They’re also part of a system, so going rogue probably isn’t worth the payoff. If you’re a teacher who reads Wexler’s book you’ll likely leave feeling more frustrated than enlightened. If she manages to convince you that elementary school instruction should be content-heavy, then you’ll be left with a dilemma: teach the way you’ve been told, even though you know it’s less effective, or start designing your own knowledge-based units of study, knowing full well that you could never cover even a tenth of what students need and further knowing that as soon as they leave your room they’ll go right back to being fed a steady dose of skills-based instruction (also, designing your own units is hella time-consuming, you probably won’t do a great job at it, and you’ll likely have to do all of it on the sly).

If this were 1980 and teachers were still left alone to teach whatever they felt like teaching in their classrooms, then they would deserve blame. But in 2019 very few teachers have enough autonomy over the curriculum to be held accountable for what gets taught. If you give your teachers a skills-based curriculum, then students are going to get skills-based lessons. That’s not on teachers. The only blame they deserve is for those instances, cited by Wexler, where school leaders try to push knowledge over skills and they meet teacher resistance to the change. But even here it’s hard to blame teachers who’ve been taught and trained in skills-based reading instruction. As Wexler writes, the teaching of reading as a set of skills is “simply the water they’ve been swimming in, so universal and taken for granted they don’t question or even notice it.” 

10% Blame: Administrators

Administrators (and the Boards of Education who rubberstamp their recommendations) have the authority to adopt curricula that focus on building knowledge instead of practicing (and practicing and practicing) skills. Leaders are also in the position to direct teachers to spend more time on social studies and science and less time on reading (which dominates the typical elementary school day). They can also set teacher evaluation policies that don’t emphasize yearly test results in reading and instead take a longer view, thereby encouraging the building of knowledge over many years and deemphasizing the skills teachers believe will lead to more immediate improvements on tests (which, of course, assess skills).

Still, it’s hard to place much blame on district and building leaders for the knowledge gap because they, like teachers, are responding to outside pressures and incentives. Left alone, many probably would like to see a broadening of the curriculum and less of an emphasis on tests. They deserve little blame because the decisions they’ve made make sense in the real world in which they operate. If districts have to evaluate teachers yearly, and if they have to give yearly high-stakes tests, then administrators will do what they can to improve test scores now. And since the tests are based on the Common Core (or a set of standards very similar to the Common Core), then it’s hard to fault leaders for adopting curricula that are aligned to the standards.

15% Blame: Curriculum Designers and Publishers

We live in an era where most elementary teachers are handed a reading program and told to teach it, often with “fidelity,” which means they shouldn’t deviate from it. Even if it’s not working, many teachers are not given the authority to supplement or change direction. The assumption behind such a policy is that curriculum designers know what they’re doing (or at least, they know more than teachers) and that great care went into a program’s design. Such programs, teachers are often told, are Common Core-aligned, meaning if they’re taught the way they’re designed, then most students should acquire the knowledge and skills outlined in the standards.

All of which means publishers are being asked to do the heavy lifting of educating our kids. And if students aren’t learning, then publishers deserve the brunt of our blame. However, publishers didn’t create the standards; they’re simply interpreting those standards and attempting to design lessons that effectively address them. If the standards are junk, or if they’re confusing, or if they simply emphasize the wrong things (as the Common Core does with reading comprehension), then publishers will produce products that lead to disappointing results.

20% The Common Core

For all the criticisms leveled at the Common Core (and there are many valid ones), perhaps the most damning is that the reason so many classrooms focus on reading skills instead of building content knowledge is the language of the standards. Educational publishers look to the standards to design their curricula. They then claim that their programs are standards-aligned. Districts purchase these aligned curricula under the assumption that students will get higher test scores on the standards-aligned tests if teachers are teaching from standards-aligned curricula. If the standards called for all first graders to learn about ancient Egypt, the solar system, and westward expansion, and if the state tests asked questions about ancient Egypt, the solar system, and westward expansion, then programs would be designed to teach those topics, teachers would use those programs, and kids would learn more content. But instead, the Common Core essentially ignores content, relegating it to a note nobody ever reads. Instead of learning about people, places, and events, the Common Core expects first graders to:

  • Identify the main topic and retell key details of a text.
  • Know and use various text features (e.g., headings, tables of contents, glossaries, electronic menus, icons) to locate key facts or information in a text.
  • Retell stories, including key details, and demonstrate understanding of their central message or lesson.

The Common Core, which drives the curricula used across the nation, had the chance to center knowledge. Instead, it centered skills. For that, it deserves much blame for the current state of reading instruction. Its creators deserve even more blame for not establishing a mechanism to review and amend the standards when we’ve discovered they’ve failed. We may know better now, but we have no way of doing better. The Common Core’s existence ensures that elementary teachers will continue to use programs that focus on skill-building instead of content knowledge acquisition.

50% Government/Reformers

As much damage as the Common Core has done to reading instruction, the standards could still be safely ignored by those doing the actual work of teaching if government actors, prodded and bribed by education reformers, hadn’t gone crazy over accountability. Those who pushed accountability deserve the lion’s share of the blame for the way reading is taught in elementary schools today. They wanted national standards but knew that attempting true national standards was politically toxic. So they came as close as they dared with the Common Core, which they then enticed states to adopt during the Great Recession. That the standards exist at all is their fault. That they’re so widespread is also their fault. That they can’t be easily changed is, you guessed it, their fault. We’ve got a lemon driving elementary reading instruction and there isn’t much we can do about it.

To assess how well the standards worked, reformers and their legislative confederates needed tests. They also suspected that a primary reason kids weren’t learning was they had shitty teachers, so the tests would identify those teachers and they could then be removed. To accomplish this end, they needed lots of tests. You couldn’t wait until fourth grade to test kids over what they knew because then how would you know which teachers had to be fired?

Because the tests exist and there are stakes attached to them, district leaders want students to do well on them. Because district leaders want good test scores, they force teachers to use programs aligned to the standards, which focus on comprehension skills. Because publishers want districts to purchase their products, they create curricula that align with the content-starved standards, thereby producing content-starved programs. Because teachers are employees who don’t want to lose their jobs (or don’t want the lowest test scores in the district, or don’t know any different, or can’t stand up to authority), they do what they’re told and teach the content-starved programs. And because the tests are given every year after second grade, there’s a disincentive to focus on building content knowledge, which may take years to bear fruit on standardized reading tests. There’s also little reason to teach science or social studies because nobody really cares how kids do on those tests and, besides, test scores in those subjects are so annually abysmal that even if students bomb, no one’s losing their job over it. And there’s the problem that teachers have no way of knowing what content will appear on the reading tests each year, so teaching content in order to help kids do better on the test is a fool’s errand. Better to teach the skills you know will be tested and hope for the best.

If we want elementary schools to provide students with a solid base of factual knowledge so they have the background to understand more of the texts they encounter, we must change how and how often we test. Tests should be content-driven and given far less often. When the tests are changed, publishers will follow. And when teachers are given curricula that focus on content, their lessons will do the same.


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4 Replies to “Who’s To Blame for the Knowledge Gap”

  1. How about you replace Betsy Devos, Mr. Murphy? I love reading your blog, but I get so wound up and frustrated that I don’t even know what to do with the energy. I seriously want to break plates or smash windows. Anyway, thanks for being a voice for us teachers.

  2. Same here, H.H.

    I just got moved to a new school. And I, too, want to break plates or smash windows.

    We’ve ruined teaching in this country. Our administrators don’t seem to understand childhood at all. The children are nothing but numbers on a data monitoring report. Teachers are, as Murph said earlier, doing nothing but delivering pizza., but worse. We can’t even choose our own route or radio station to listen to while driving. We’re told what to teach, how to teach, when to teach, what to say, how to respond. Any deviance will be dealt with harshly enough in an attempt to break us from any further deviance. The teachers around me live in fear, and I’m not sure they even know it. Had me a plate!

  3. You might be interested in reading this article from the New York times Opinion section. According to the author,

    “Scientific research has shown how children learn to read and how they should be taught. But many educators don’t know the science and, in some cases, actively resist it. As a result, millions of kids are being set up to fail.”


    For this author, teaching reading is teaching phonics, and she claims science backs her up. However, for the first time, I’ve been given a strictly phonics-based approach to teaching reading. And I cannot say I’m happy with it. In fact, I’m miserable.

    One of my main duties in my teaching position is to teach SIPPS, which is a paint-by-the-numbers (You say, they say) phonics-based reading program. It’s drill, drill, drill, stripping any possible joy away from teaching, or from the student’s perspective, learning how to read.

    I have always been able to create a learning environment where at students can become engaged and find joy in learning (what a novel idea, right?), so I quickly supplemented the strict phonics-based lesson to make the experience more enjoyably engaging, more like a game.

    After being observed by one of our building teaching coaches, there was an email sent out reminding all teachers that all curricula “must be practiced with absolute fidelity.” In other words, teachers cannot be trusted to teach in any manner other than what has been handed down to them.

    Teachers are puppets now. Either get used to it or find another profession.

    I cannot remain in a system like this. I don’t know if I can even make it to Winter Break, let alone the school year. We’ve ruined teaching in this country.

  4. I’m going to stick my nose in this again.

    Murph puts 15% of the blame on curriculum designers and publishers. However, I give the bulk of the blame to curriculum designers and publishers, of which Common Core has a big hand in since the designers and publishers are trying to basically demonstrate their Common Core cause.

    Teachers have had to relinquish all, or nearly all, power and authority they might have once had in their own classroom (if they were a teacher long enough to remember) to these packaged curricula, of which all claim to be aligned to the almighty common core standards.

    These designers lobby their curricula, showing their adherence to common core standards, to the school districts or state legislatures, and everyone just follows. The big winners are the curricula publishers (who also just happen to have their hand in the assessments) in big financial rewards.

    Teachers (and in my opinion, the students) are the big losers. Teachers are assigned to delivery the curricula to their students with fidelity so that the true value and financial cost of the curricula can be justified as “scientifically valid.”

    The best way to ensure any such curriculum experiment is scientifically valid is to put teachers in complete compliance with its implementation. To help ensure this, the designers incorporate a “You say – they say / You do -they do” methodology.

    The teacher’s role is to assume the “teacher personality.” Make it appear authentic. Act like you enjoy it.

    The worst thing you can do as a teacher is to deviate from the script. For if you do, like a broken link in the chain, the whole thing of it will not only come crashing down on you, but on the whole system that it entails.

    Now, you don’t want that to happen, do you?

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