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For years, many elementary schools serving low-income kids—particularly charter schools—have focused on teaching basic skills in reading and math. But now one nationally recognized charter leader says that to close the achievement gap, schools need a different approach. Will DC charters follow suit?

Last month, a leader of Achievement First, a well-respected charter network based in New York, candidly admitted that her schools had erred in cutting out subjects like history and science to spend more time on the so-called basics.

"One of the bigger mistakes I made as a practitioner when we first started,” said Dacia Toll, co-CEO and president of the network, “is we thought, well, the kids are struggling in reading. So what do you do? You have more reading. And I realized that was exactly the wrong thing to have done, that in fact really rich hands-on science and sophisticated history, and reading in both history and science, is profoundly impactful in terms of equipping our kids to be successful.”

The problem, Toll said at a panel on education convened by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in DC, is that reading comprehension is highly dependent on background knowledge and vocabulary.

The staff at Achievement First, as at other schools, had assumed that if you use a simple reading passage on any given subject to teach a student a skill such as “finding the main idea,” the student will then be able to apply that skill to more challenging text on some other subject.

But—as you know if you’re technologically challenged and have ever tried to understand the user manual for some newly acquired device—reading comprehension doesn’t actually work that way. If you don’t have enough vocabulary and pre-existing knowledge to make sense of a text, it will remain impenetrable.

In one study, researchers divided students into groups according to general reading ability and prior knowledge about baseball. They then gave all the students a passage to read about baseball. The result? Weak readers who knew a lot about baseball outperformed strong readers who didn’t.

Low-income students generally start school with significantly less vocabulary and general background knowledge than their middle-class peers. As they move up from one grade to the next, that gap widens.

And when schools focus on free-floating reading comprehension “skills,” unmoored from any substantive or coherent curriculum, they do little to close it. By the time disadvantaged students get to the more demanding work of middle and high school, they may be hopelessly behind.

Common Core test results were a wake-up call

The idea that reading comprehension depends on background knowledge isn’t new. Some commentators—most notably E.D. Hirsch—have been urging that argument for decades. But until recently, most education reformers either dismissed or ignored it.

Toll’s admission nearly dumbfounded another panelist at the forum. “I’m just giddy sitting here,” said Robert Pondiscio, a Hirsch disciple and a senior fellow at the Fordham Institute. “What you’re saying is what I’ve been waiting for somebody to say for about 10 years now.”

Toll said the “wake-up call” for Achievement First was the new Common Core State Standards and their accompanying tests, which are more rigorous than the standardized tests New York and other states have given in the past. When New York switched to Common Core-aligned tests two years ago, the results showed “the achievement gap is even wider than we thought it was,” Toll said.

"Our schools, which were high-achieving under the old regime, are no longer,” she added. She referred to those previously high scores on easier tests as a “false positive.”

But a few schools in New York with low-income populations continued to get high scores even after the new tests came in. Those schools, which are part of the Icahn and Success Academy charter networks, placed more emphasis on curriculum, Toll said. The Icahn schools use the Core Knowledge curriculum developed by a foundation started by E.D. Hirsch. (In the video of the forum, Toll’s comments appear at about 43 minutes in, and then again at about 58 minutes in.)

New York’s experience may be replicated in DC

Because New York adopted more rigorous tests two years ahead of most other states, their school system may be the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Schools in DC and elsewhere will begin giving Common Core tests this year, and their experience is likely to be similar.

One high-performing DC charter network, which preferred to remain anonymous, is already focusing on bringing more substance and coherence to its curriculum, beginning with the early elementary grades. Others may follow suit.

But deciding to shift the focus from skills to a content-based curriculum, while important, is only the beginning. The next question is what the curriculum should include and how it should build from one grade to the next. Once you’ve decided on answers to those tricky questions, you have to figure out how to teach that content in a way that engages disadvantaged kids and ensures they’re actually absorbing it.

And even then, you may still have students who enter in later grades and lack the background knowledge others have acquired. Some of them may not even know English.

Beyond that, any improvement in test scores is unlikely to show up immediately, if at all. Because the United States has no national curriculum, the Common Core tests—designed to be given across multiple states—aren’t tied to any particular content. Like the standardized tests they replace, they too will focus not on testing specific knowledge but on reading “skills,” albeit more sophisticated skills.

So if your students have become experts in, say, ancient Egypt, and they’re confronted on a standardized test with a passage about Amelia Earhart, will they still ace the comprehension questions?

Some educators say yes, arguing that habits of reading developed in the context of a meaningful curriculum will carry over to unfamiliar subjects. And it’s encouraging that the curriculum-focused charter schools in New York scored well on that state’s Common Core-aligned tests.

Even so, it’s still not clear that a curriculum-focused approach can actually close the achievement gap. The Success Academy network may have had high scores on New York’s Common Core-aligned tests, but last year none of the graduating 8th-graders at its flagship school scored high enough on city tests to be admitted to any of the city’s elite public high schools.

But focusing on curriculum isn’t just about improving test scores, important as they may be in today’s world. As Toll noted, students deprived of knowledge aren’t equipped to understand the kind of texts required for success in college and in everyday adult life, or even many newspaper articles.

"We’ve been at this now for two years,” Toll said of her school’s new focus on curriculum, “and I think it’s the only thing that’s moving the needle. And it moves really slowly. But I think it’s really worth it.”

Update: In another sign that charter schools are beginning to recognize the importance of curriculum, nearly half the schools in the KIPP network are using a math curriculum developed by an organization called Great Minds. That organization is now developing an English curriculum that will be available to KIPP and any other school that wants to use it.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.