Little learners need better curriculum

Mayor Bloomberg is justifiably proud of the big gains New York City made in boosting the high-school graduation rate on his watch, with about two-thirds of students now graduating in four years, up from half a decade ago. This appears to be the result of a whirlwind of creative efforts, including expanding educational options for teenagers via the creation of hundreds of brand-new high schools.

Yet Mayor Mike’s good work for big kids is matched by lackluster results for the city’s younger students. Eighth-grade reading scores, for instance, barely budged from 2003 to 2011, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (2013 scores are due out next week).

Perhaps this is one reason that de Blasio wants to expand the city’s pre-K offerings. In theory, giving low-income students a head start at age four will help them become better readers and better learners.

But de Blasio needs to come to grips with a simple truth: Any gains provided by a massive new investment in preschool will quickly fade away if he doesn’t also tackle New York City’s mediocre elementary schools.

What makes them mediocre? It’s the curriculum, stupid — or the lack thereof. When Bloomberg and Joel Klein exploded on the scene in the early 2000s, they were famously agnostic about what kids actually learn in the classroom day to day. To Klein’s credit, he eventually came to see the errors of his ways, and in his last years as chancellor he embraced the Core Knowledge program—a coherent, content-rich curriculum that is a model for what kids in New York, and nationwide, need if they are going to become strong readers.

What’s so special about content knowledge? As scholar and Core Knowledge creator E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has argued for thirty years—and as more recent cognitive science has confirmed—knowledge is the building block of literacy. Once students learn to “decode” the English language, their ability to comprehend what they read is all about what they know.

Weak readers who know a lot about baseball, for instance, demonstrate a high reading ability when reading about baseball. But those very same students can look like terrible readers if they are working through a passage on, say, the Civil War that they know nothing about.

The job of elementary schools, then, should be to systematically build students’ content knowledge in important areas like history, geography, civics, science, art, music, and literature. Yet most elementary schools (nationwide—not just in New York) are content-free wastelands.

Thankfully, Gotham is better positioned for an elementary school overhaul than most cities. In part, that’s because the state of New York, under Commissioner John King, has developed a wonderful, content-rich curriculum, aligned with the new Common Core standards, for grades K–12. (The Core Knowledge Foundation developed the K–2 piece of the English language arts curriculum.)

Furthermore, Bloomberg’s Department of Education has listed Core Knowledge as one of the model curricula for New York City teachers to consider as they transition to the new standards.

De Blasio should go even further. If he wants to be bold, he might urge all city elementary schools to adopt Core Knowledge.

He should also use its preschool sequence for his new pre-K initiative. He should purchase millions of new, content-rich books for the city’s grade schools.

And he should invest in thoughtful, aggressive training for all of the city’s pre-K and elementary school teachers.

Mayor Mike’s approach led to big gains for New York’s high-school system. De Blasio should be wise enough to leave those parts of the reform agenda in place while he works to construct a sturdy educational foundation for the city’s youngest children.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Daily News.

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