Photo of students from Shutterstock.

For decades, elementary schools have focused on building skills at the expense of instilling knowledge. One DC charter school network, Center City, is in the forefront of a movement to reverse that approach.

Most elementary schools in the US teach reading by focusing on skills like “finding the main idea” or “making predictions.” Especially in high-poverty urban schools, where kids often struggle with reading, teachers spend hours every day on these skills and don’t teach history or science in any systematic way.

But to understand what you’re reading, you need a certain amount of relevant background knowledge and vocabulary. Just try finding the main idea of this abstract of an article in a scientific journal. Unless you’re well versed in cellular biology, chances are you’ll be stumped.

That’s what it’s like for many kids who try to tackle high school level material after spending years practicing reading comprehension skills on simple stories. And low-income kids, who are far less likely to acquire knowledge at home, start out at a disadvantage and fall farther behind with each passing year.

The Common Core State Standards, adopted by DC and dozens of states, aimed to correct this situation. The authors of the standards included language about the need to build knowledge systematically starting in elementary school, by implementing a broad and coherent curriculum.

But few have noticed that fundamental aspect of the Common Core, which doesn’t actually require schools to focus on any particular content. In fact, many have blamed the Common Core for the very thing it was trying to remedy: the narrowing of the curriculum to basic skills in reading and math.

Some schools are undertaking the shift

Still, some schools and school districts, including DC Public Schools, have undertaken the challenging shift from a focus on skills to one on building knowledge. One is Center City, a DC network of charter schools with six preschool-through-8th-grade campuses primarily serving low-income students.

Center City is “light years ahead of most schools around the country” in implementing the new approach, according to Silas Kulkarni. Kulkarni is on the staff of Student Achievement Partners, a group that supports teachers in adapting to the new demands of the Common Core.

A few years ago, teachers at Center City, like many elsewhere, would decide what to teach by working backwards from the skills that would be assessed on standardized tests. Center City would give students tests called “ANet” (short for Achievement Network) every couple of months.

"Whatever ANet’s assessing in the next nine weeks, that’s what I’m teaching,” says Center City’s director of curriculum, Amanda Pecsi, summarizing the old approach.

But in 2013 Center City got a new CEO, Russ Williams. After hearing teachers complain they were all teaching different things and couldn’t collaborate, Williams put Pecsi, then a classroom teacher an assistant principal, in charge of creating a coherent network-wide curriculum.

Pecsi, now aided by two other staff members, has put together a program that incorporates elements from various sources. For kindergarten through 2nd grade, Center City uses the Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum. In the upper grades, the school borrows from free resources available on state websites like EngageNY and Louisiana Believes has created its own unit plans.

Teachers also get lists of text sets, groups of books or excerpts all focused on a particular subject, like astronomy for first-graders. The texts in the set get increasingly more difficult, and the idea is that as students read they’ll build knowledge that enables them to handle more complexity.

Kids find acquiring knowledge more engaging than practicing skills

One criticism often leveled at the Common Core is that it’s unrealistic to expect young children to handle the kind of “complex text” the standards call for. But as a visit to Center City demonstrates, kids not only can handle complex ideas, they actually enjoy them.

For one thing, reading isn’t the only way for kids to get information. Before asking students to read a text on a given subject, teachers can orally introduce ideas and vocabulary that are beyond kids’ reading levels.

In one 1st grade class at Center City’s Brightwood campus, for example, the teacher held 25 children rapt as she animatedly read to them about igneous rock. Pointing to a large drawing of the interior of a volcano, she asked the kids where the fire comes from.

"Magma!” they chorused, drawing on knowledge they’d gotten in a previous lesson.

Gradually, the teacher led them to the conclusion that igneous rock—whose Latin root, she explained, comes from the word for “fire”—is magma that has cooled. The children greeted the revelation with cries of wonder.

That’s another advantage of a knowledge-based approach: if it’s done well, kids find it far more engaging than spending hours practicing finding the main idea. Schools with challenging populations may feel they have to establish order before they can shift to focusing on knowledge, but that could be a mistake.

If kids are excited about learning, “the behavior problems fall away,” says Samantha Flaherty, Center City’s curriculum manager.

Adopting a curriculum is only half the battle

But adopting a curriculum is only half of what a school needs to make the shift successfully. It establishes what you teach, but just as important is how you teach it.

Providing a teacher with a script about, say, different kinds of rock relieves her of the burden of acquiring all that knowledge herself. But if she just reads the script in a monotone, “the kids will go crazy after ten minutes,” says Flaherty. Each teacher has to own the material, teaching it in a way that is both engaging and suited to her own style.

Another challenge is weaning teachers from a focus on data and test scores. Skills alone don’t mean much, but it’s easier for teachers to measure whether kids are acquiring them than whether they’re building knowledge.

And the new Common Core tests that DC and other schools across the country have switched to this year will continue to measure skills, not knowledge. But because the new tests call for greater analytical abilities, kids will only score well if they’ve acquired enough knowledge to become good general readers. For low-income kids, that could take years.

Williams has a laid-back attitude toward testing. “I tell teachers, don’t chase the test,” he says. “If you have a strong curriculum, the test will take care of itself.”

That’s a sentiment you won’t hear from many school leaders these days, unfortunately. And at schools where there’s pressure to increase test scores, teachers will have an even harder time adjusting to a focus on knowledge.

"People are just beginning to realize that we need to change everything,” says Flaherty. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”

But building knowledge is the only way to make elementary education meaningful for all kids, and it’s our best chance of narrowing the achievement gap.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

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.