Knowledge Matters: Opportunity Ripe to Close Achievement Gap with ESSA

Since the passing of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), local schools and districts have the opportunity to dramatically shift the way reading tests are used, and to systematically develop skills, knowledge, and vocabulary throughout the elementary grades.

Knowledge Matters: Restoring the Wonder and Excitement to the Classroom,” is a national campaign focused on improving students’ reading comprehension and understanding of broad topics, rather than concentrating on the short-term goals of literacy and language “coding.”

The campaign provides resources to policymakers, teachers and parents on ways to build the broad knowledge and vocabulary needed for all students to truly succeed. Its leaders believe this effort is, “our best hope for closing the reading achievement gap.”

The Problem

Students could lose their learning momentum if opportunities to expand their knowledge and vocabulary stagnate in the elementary grades. Experts have always known that reading and literacy is foundational to all other learning, which is why there is such a strong emphasis on reading skills in the elementary grades. But improving reading comprehension also involves an intentional, long-term effort to broaden students’ knowledge and understanding of vocabulary.

Knowledge Matters is based on research that discovered a “paradox” in efforts to improve reading skills. While there was an intensive focus on reading in the early grades by teaching phonics and letter recognition – methods which help children learn the “skill” of reading by sounding out the words – the reading scores seem to decline after they peak in the 3rd grade. The problem lies in a student’s comprehension and understanding of what they are reading, which is what they will be expected to do across the curriculum by middle school, in post-secondary education and throughout their adult lives.

According to the report, the pressure to increase reading scores by the “No Child Left Behind” Act provisions meant that more class time was taken up with reading-test practice and drills. As a result, far less class time was spent on subjects that, while essential for building knowledge for understanding, are not as consequential for federal and state funding.

A child who – since birth – has traveled and been exposed to more opportunities to explore and question the world around them will enter school with a broader knowledge and an advanced vocabulary.

A 2012 national survey of science and mathematics education discovered a large discrepancy in the time teachers spent per day on core subjects. The survey revealed that teachers in grades K-3 spent an average 89 minutes on reading/language arts and 54 minutes on mathematics, but only 19 minutes on science and 16 minutes on social studies. The same disparity was revealed in the survey for grades 4-6. Other studies have found even less time, or no time, spent on science and social studies, because teachers felt more pressure to improve reading scores. This was especially true in high-poverty schools. (All study references can be found in the Knowledge Matters policy brief, “Job One: Build Knowledge.”)

One major contributing factor for the achievement gap is that disadvantaged kids don’t have as many educational experiences and opportunities from which to glean knowledge before they enter school. In other words, a child who – since birth – has traveled and been exposed to more opportunities to explore and question the world around them, and with parents who have achieved higher levels of post-secondary education, will enter school with a broader knowledge and an advanced vocabulary. Therefore their reading skills excel because they already know more about the topics they are reading.

Ultimately, students score higher on reading tests when they have a broader, deeper knowledge of the subject they’re reading, even when their mechanical reading skills are not as developed. In contrast, students with excellent literacy skills, but little or no knowledge of the subject matter, score lower on reading tests.

The Solution

Knowledge Matters cites overwhelming evidence that broader knowledge acquired from engaging and exciting experiences is not only important but also foundational for student learning. Much more time should be spent on a broad range of subjects, because:

1) children get more excited about subjects like science and social studies and dive deeper in what interests them, and
2) as children connect what they know with what they read, their reading skills and comprehension will excel.

Teachers and schools cannot control how much each child experiences before they start their formal education, and they are well aware of knowledge gaps when children first enter the classroom. But Knowledge Matters provides policy and administrative solutions to help teachers include in their lessons more experiences and knowledge-based learning opportunities for all students to advance and succeed. And, there are resources for teachers to collaborate across curricula to implement more engaging and exciting learning opportunities.

Knowledge acquired from engaging and exciting experiences is not only important, but it’s critically foundational for student learning.

Opportunities Under ESSA

The ESSA provides states with more freedom and flexibility to better support school innovation. So now is the perfect time to make major school, district and statewide changes. The Knowledge Matters campaign encourages states to evaluate every aspect of their education systems, from state policies to school cultures. Here are some recommendations outlined in the brief:

  1. Look for unintended consequences of accountability policies. ESSA allows flexibility by basing accountability on multiple measures. Under its waiver from the previous version of federal education law, the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) capitalized on this flexibility in their strategic Plan 2020 by creating a growth model rather than an achievement model using multiple measures, to help teachers and parents see where their students are on a learning trajectory.
  2.  Encourage and support well-rounded curricula. With ESSA, states are not required to just measure outcomes. States should strategically incentivize building knowledge and vocabulary, like requiring more time on science, social studies, music and art – all vitally important for a well-rounded education.
  3.  Create a state-wide sequence and sequence-based reading tests. States that are really committed to supporting knowledge-building strategies for all students should consider bringing together the best educators, researchers and leaders to develop a model sequence of academic domains to teach in each grade, and develop assessments aligned with this sequence.
  4.  Increase teachers’ subject-matter knowledge. Boosting teacher-knowledge demands of certification tests increases the likelihood that all teachers have an adequate base of subject-matter expertise. States could also support co-planning and team teaching to pool teachers’ subject-matter expertise.
  5.  Start early to overcome disparities in young children’s opportunities to acquire academic knowledge. Because kids enter school with vastly different experiences, the earlier we start building knowledge, the greater our chances of closing the gap.

ESSA Opportunities in Alabama

Governor Bentley recently established a state implementation committee for the Every Student Succeeds Act. This collective group of educators and leaders is charged with the responsibility of developing by December 1, 2016, a state plan for implementation of the new law. This group can be instrumental in creating the policies that can support local schools and teachers to increase enriching, engaging, knowledge-building experiences for all students. When every child not only reads at or above grade level, but also understands and can critically analyze what they read, Alabama’s progress in educating its young citizens will accelerate and make the “achievement gap” a thing of the past.

Read the full brief here. Job One: Build Knowledge – ESSA Creates an Opportunity – and an Obligation – to Help Every Child Become a Strong Reader (Issue Brief #4, May 2016)

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