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John Thompson is a historian and a retired teacher in Oklahoma.
I have very strong, positive and negative feelings about Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System and How to Fix It. For better and/or the worse, the Oklahoma State Department of Education has committed to what Wexler calls science-based reading instruction and what many experts see as another push for phonics, paired with an assault on so-called “Progressivism.”
My big worry is the way that some of her hypotheses are being appropriated by privatizers in their latest attacks on public schools.
And since former Chief for Change Janet Baressi, who pushed for the retention of 3rd graders based on their reading scores, is running for Congress, Oklahoma educators need to participate in an evidence-based evaluation of Wexler’s book and respond to many of her sources, out-of-state think tanks seeking to restore the test and punish policies we’ve repealed or made less destructive.
Surely we can agree that that corporate school reform has damaged reading instruction, especially for our poorest children, by narrowing the curriculum and expanding test prep. Wexler notes, “The amount of time spent on social studies and science has plummeted—especially in schools where test scores are low.” Teachers are forced to “focus on a ‘skill of the week,’” robbing students of opportunities to learn the background knowledge necessary to read for comprehension.
The best parts of The Knowledge Gap, I believe, are not its analyses of research; even though I lack the expertise to prove it, my sense is that Wexler oversimplifies when interpreting how academic research applies to policy. (For instance, I’ve long admired Dan Willingham, who she often cites, and I would be surprised if he were to claim that adopting methods based on his cognitive research, alone, would produce such transformative gains.)
I most respect Wexler’s insights that come from tutoring or watching children in class. For instance, she shows how divorced Common Core is from reality (which is my wording, not Wexler’s). She describes a 1st grader who was supposed to “draw conclusions” using “a dense article describing Brazil,” but who thought her assignment was to “draw clowns.”
Wexler does a great job, joining teachers and parents, in criticizing “test prep.” However, she then adds, teachers “haven’t focused on the more fundamental problem.” And that foreshadows the problems with The Knowledge Gap. Its targets include the decades of progressivism and the “antipathy” of educators who refuse to see the evidence she cites with “their own eyes.”
After criticizing No Child Left Behind for driving social studies from the curriculum, Wexler places equal or greater blame on progressive orthodoxy. She writes, “Perhaps the most powerful belief teachers absorb during their training is that education should be a natural, pleasurable, process and that learning or (heaven forbid) memorizing is inherently boring and soul-destroying.”
Given the extreme damage done to our poorest children of color by accountability-driven, market-driven reformers who have long slandered classroom teachers, I was most upset by Wexler’s attack on my colleagues:
”Today’s child-centered progressive educators – and the many who have unconsciously absorbed the movement’s shibboleths – sincerely want our education system to function as an engine of social and economic mobility. … But by denying less privileged children access to knowledge, they are doing just as much to perpetuate existing inequities as their distant cousins who invented tracking: the social efficiency progressives.”
(And as a former social historian, I’m annoyed by the linkage of today’s child-centered progressives with social efficiency progressives; its corporate school reform that is rooted in Taylorism and social efficiency progressivism.)
At times, Wexler sounds like a lawyer parsing words carefully in defense of her client, corporate school reformers trying to blame educators for the failure of their agenda. For instance, she verges on ridiculing educators who prioritize “critical thinking” and “learning to learn,” but her precise argument is that “foregrounding” such skills is the problem.
Then, such nuance may be followed by a broad assertion like, “What the vast majority of educators, reformers, commentators, and government officials still haven’t realized is that elementary school is where the real problem has been hiding, in plain sight.” I wish she had mentioned social scientists as members of the majority who don’t accept her hypothesis.
Wexler critiques Common Core literacy standards which, she says, “have in many ways made a bad situation worse.” In the majority of classrooms, she concludes, “the results can be disastrous” because teachers “may put impenetrable text in front of kids and just let them struggle. Or, perhaps, draw clowns.”
Wexler also defends Common Core advocates like David Coleman, for instance, saying that his vision was “not necessarily incompatible” with E.D. Hirsch’s. Rather than provide real world evidence for such an implausible assertion, she shifts some of the blame to the 3/4ths of teachers who “believe incorrectly” that Common Core calls for “texts on individualized reading levels and skills over content.” Even if that blanket statement isn’t inaccurate, where did that belief come from – teachers’ misreading of Common Core or the mandates they received by administrators complying with the main thrust of an experiment that hadn’t been thought through?
I wish Wexler would acknowledge how the real harm of Common Core came from the combination of complex, confusing, untested standards with high stakes testing – even punishing individual teachers, children, and GED test takers in inappropriate and ill-conceived punitive systems. Had she done so, perhaps Wexler would have realized that the supposed sins of the “status quo” were the predictable results of test and punish, market-driven reforms, not the perverse stubbornness of educators.
Often, Wexler is fair to classroom teachers, such as those in an urban district who have long had to deal with a “significant reform initiative” every three months. She says that figuring out both how to teach and what to teach which is “a nearly impossible task.” And she agrees that Common Core made that ordeal worse.
But, Wexler notes that teachers have denied that it’s realistic to expect struggling students to read at grade level as Common Core requires. She offers some anecdotes in support of her dubious suggestion that it is possible to do that at scale. She also adds, implausibly, “perhaps it’s only unrealistic because of the content-adverse approach they have championed is what is holding those students back.” And that leads to the type of statement that offends us teachers who have dedicated our lives to our students, “millions of kids … are only waiting for someone to actually teach them something to unlock their potential.”
Moreover, raising standards and teaching for reading comprehension is much more difficult in a society where only 32% of students could identify Civil War dates within fifty years. And Wexler acknowledges that high learning standards have not worked because the time it would take to master them would require students to attend school until grade 21 or 22. But she seems to mostly blame the lack of knowledge on progressive orthodoxy for not teaching elementary social studies and for social studies pushing history out of the curriculum.
So, Wexler praises the international systems that use a “detailed national curriculum along with tests based on it,” and she wants to add essay questions to standardized tests. Wexler blames the lack of such a curriculum and tests on “politics.” Her solution would be better writing instruction.
When it comes to edu-politics, Wexler tends to be more sympathetic to reformers than to practitioners. When Diane Ravitch told her that “poverty is a bigger problem than curriculum,” she could have studied the social science which backs up Ravitch. It sounds to me that that she claims that poor Michelle Rhee couldn’t tackle the need for curriculum because she would have then been beat up by Ravitch.
But when Wexler complains about Lucy Calkins, “just one of several prominent balanced literacy gurus,” she’ll make statements like, “The only problem for Calkins …” Wexler then indicated that part of that problem was Calkins’ rejection of scripted lessons. Rather than lengthen this review by addressing that issue, I’ll respond to a worrisome pattern in The Knowledge Gap. Never in my decades of experience have I seen problems or solutions that come from only one source, and I never had to satisfy Joel Klein while transforming much of New York City’s education system.
I became more suspicious of Wexler’s recommendations near the end of her book where she describes Washoe County, NV, which in 2011 just sought to teach the 18% of standards that are on the test. Those “power standards” were called “jackpot standards” by teachers who complied with them. She praised the grassroots effort to customize the program.
She acknowledges the role of Fordham and others in pushing Common Core and she acknowledges problems with Common Core. But she mostly trusts their complaints about implementation. So, it becomes a part of her theme of failed implementation by educators deserves more blame.
Next, Wexler seems to be reporting on the facts on the ground that explain why reformers failed. She describes posters embraced by reformers proclaiming to elementary students, “TRY HARD!,” “No fear!,” and “Believe!” She seems disdainful of their efforts to stop the “3rd grade PARCC worry chain,” and “leaving our fears outside.” As she approaches the chapter “Scaling Up: Can It Be Done?,” Wexler concludes that section by reporting on a dynamic charter teacher who leaves her high-challenge class.
But the optimism in Wexler’s final chapters seems to be based the narratives presented by Klein and his “devotees” like John King and John White. She points out the success of a kid who had been in the “dumb group” but who flourished when using the package, “Wit and Wisdom.” Her greatest hope seems to be the Core Knowledge Learning Arts program (CKLA), and she says that thousands of schools use it, but she offers no research-based evidence of its successes.
The book closes without evidence that CKLA is can be scaled up. Scouring her footnotes, I found no support for her analysis except for Fordham Institute advocates. Interestingly, after Wexler (and Emily Hanford) participated in the Research Ed conference last week, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli came out with an even tougher strategy for implementing Wexler’s agenda. He proposes a Vergara-style lawsuit against states that don’t provide “scientifically based reading instruction.” The head of a think tank that specializes in spreading junk science, Petrilli, believes:
Putting the defenders of whole language and balanced literacy on trial would be its own form of justice—one that might even lead education schools nationwide to get religion on the science of reading.
And when Billionaires Boys Club’s lobbyists, especially from Fordham, return to Oklahoma to promote the Chief for Change’s Baressi’s and other teacher-bashers’ memes, I hope legislators will listen to Tulsa teachers who despise CKLA.