Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Book Review: The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children

E.D. Hirsch, Jr. was a college professor, specializing in the history of ideas and in the theory of textual interpretation, which, as he says, "reduced to its essence, is the theory of reading." He examines the persistence of low reading scores in American classrooms from this perspective and comes to a rather unusual conclusion: the American education system has been spending too much time on the mechanics of reading and not enough time on providing children with the background information they need to understand what they are reading.

His theory is really quite simple. Once a child has learned the mechanics of decoding, usually by third grade, the next task is to understand what is read (reading for information). If the child has some preliminary understanding of the material read, s/he doesn't have to spend as much effort understanding it. For example, if the child has been introduced to farms and farm life, they are more likely to understand a story that takes place on a farm. This is where the American education system breaks down.

His proof? American students score quite respectably vis-a-vis foreign students in fourth grade, but lose ground every year after.

His example? This simple sentence: Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run.

I read the words. I know what "sacrificed" means and I know what a "run" is. But I wasn't sure what the sentence meant until Dr. Hirsch provided the context: baseball. (Remember, I was reading about education and didn’t expect to see a sentence referring to baseball.) Once I knew the context, I understood the sentence. Dr. Hirsch's point was that an English reader, unfamiliar with baseball, still wouldn't understand the sentence. The author of the sentence assumes the reader has a familiarity with baseball and understands the game. Dr. Hirsch then demonstrates all the information that the author would need to provide in order for an English reader (or anyone who doesn't know about baseball) to understand the simple sentence. His explanation takes an entire page.

All authors make assumptions about what their readers know beforehand, even easy-readers. What happens when the reader doesn’t have the knowledge the author assumes? In many cases, the reader won’t “get” the text. In a classroom situation, this lack of understanding might not be a big deal—the teacher can explain the text. But what happens during a test?

During a standard reading comprehension test, the student must read several different short passages and answer questions pertaining to the topic. Dr. Hirsch points out that to prepare students for these tests, schools have decided they must train their students in reading strategies: clarify what the passage means, question the author, find the main idea, make inferences about the passage, study the meanings of words, consider the sequence of events in the passage. These, according to Dr. Hirsch, are reading strategies. This is not comprehension.

Even when test-makers go to great lengths to provide background information, such as pictures or definitions, students who are unfamiliar with the subject matter are slowed down because they are assimilating and applying the new background information before they can use their reading strategies to answer the question. Students who have the background already don't have to assimilate the information.

This would be unneccessary, in Dr. Hirsch's opinion, if all students in the same grade were learning the same thing. For example, if all students learned about ancient Egypt in the Sixth Grade, then reading tests could use material about Egypt. Students would be familiar with concept of pyramids and pharaohs and so testing would truly be about comprehension.

Dr. Hirsch does have an agenda. He is the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation which, among other things, publishes the series What Every ____ Grader Should Know. His Foundation has developed a Core Curriculum for preschool through Eighth Grade, which he claims has been used successful in several schools throughout the country.

However, his theory is not new. Jim Trelease in the Read Aloud Handbook makes the same point: experience is an important component of comprehension, as is repetitive, in-depth exposure to concepts and ideas. (Anyone who has had a child who become fixated on a subject like dinosaurs or trains and, therefore, has read every book on the subject to their preschooler on the subject knows about this!)

Both men have a couple of other ideas in common: children can understand sophisticated concepts presented orally long before they are capable of reading about them. Therefore, it is vitally important that intriguing and challenging ideas be presented to children while they are learning to read. Additionally, learning to read is not like learning to speak. Written language developed much later in human history and is an artificial construct (it has to be--look at how many different ways there are to represent the same sounds!). The rules of written language are different from those of spoken language as well; they are much more formal. So the act of learning to read and to write is a more formal, deliberate process (for most of us, anyway).

Dr. Hirsch makes several good points and has some research to support his theories. Intuitively, his theories and concepts make sense, if for no other reason than promoting a common culture. A formal, national curriculum, specific in content, would be easier on students and teachers. Moving or changing schools would be less of a problem for students, who now either miss chunks of subjects or find them repeating subject matter learned previously. Teachers wouldn't have to guess what their students had learned the previous year and could build on it.

Will it ever happen? I doubt it, based on the battles by teachers in my local school district against using Open Court, a structured reading program. Many teachers seem to feel that structure inhibits their freedom and creativity. They don't seem to realize that structure is what allows us to live together in groups and to communicate with one another.

The Knowledge Deficit is important as a starting point for discussion about education, especially our expectations as parents, as teachers, and as a community about what should be considered "common knowledge." This is a dialogue that needs to be taken out of the "ivory tower" of educational theory and brought down to the streets.

We need to take back our children's lives from the "experts." But that is a blog for another day!

On the March Hare scale: I think this is a book every citizen concerned about education should read.