Rich, broad curriculum to build background knowledge

After years of neglect, DC has adopted high standards in all subjects, but our accountability system focuses on English/language arts and math, often pushing schools and teachers, (especially in elementary schools) to deemphasize history-social studies, science, and the arts. These subjects are important in their own right. Plus, to comprehend the higher level reading material that students face in middle-and high-school, as well as in college and life, students must possess the background knowledge that is learned in the very courses that we’re squeezing out.

For more than you ever wanted to know about this critical issue, check out these links:

How knowledge affects reading

I paid a lot of attention to the relationship between subject knowledge and reading when I edited the American Educator magazine for AFT.  For example, we devoted an entire issue to the “4th Grade Plunge“–which explains why so many kids, especially from low-language households, start losing ground in 4th grade.  It’s a decade old but still right on target.  In the main article, “Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge of Words and the World,” E.D. Hirsch argues that if schools don’t systematically teach science, history-social studies, and the arts from the earliest ages, kids just won’t have the knowledge they need to make sense of the harder texts they must read starting in 4th grade.

The knowledge gap starts so early

In this article, “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3,” we helped bring to popular knowledge (back in 2003!) the hard fact that we can’t wait until kindergarten to provide an educational boost to poor children.  Children from low-language homes need early education starting from the beginning of their lives.  It’s one reason why DC’s initiative around pre-k is so important.

Nationally, science, history, and the arts are being squeezed out.

Since leaving AFT, I’ve focused heavily on this issue. My favorite project since I left was writing this article, with the overly dense title “Complex Texts Require Complex Knowledge: Will the New English Standards Get the Content They Need?”  Did you know that in schools across the country, early elementary kids on average spend less than 3 hours a week on BOTH social studies and science! I’d like to know how well our DC schools are faring on this.  Kids who don’t have a grasp of these subjects won’t be able to comprehend complicated middle school texts. (Plus, we will bore them!)

You try it:

Imagine trying to read a middle school science text if you hadn’t previously learned about photosynthesis, adaptation, or cell structure!  Or, don’t imagine it.  Try it for yourself.  Click here and see how well you can comprehend this abstract of an article from a scientific journal.   I think the experience of reading it is a wake up call to us adults about how important subject knowledge is for reading. (BTW, I got this science article and the idea for using it at a meeting held several years ago at Wilson High School  for teachers and parents who were interested in strengthening the English curriculum there.)

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Ruth Wattenberg for Ward 3 School Board 2014

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