Ep 158: The Knowledge Gap

Episode Summary

Natalie Wexler, author of The Knowledge Gap, clues us in onto the widening knowledge gap: what it is, why it’s happening, and how we might begin to narrow it.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

For many of us, education is the #1 priority for our kids. A good education can help lift kids out of poverty, can ensure a financially stable and independent future, and can open up the doors of opportunity and possibility, no matter what they dream of doing! While hobbies, social life and athleticism are all important parts of helping kids become well rounded, education is key to giving them the ticket to a prosperous life.

But the sad truth is that our education system might not be doing what we need it to do! In many ways, our current curriculum takes the wrong approach, leaving kids without the knowledge they need to succeed in adulthood. Today’s schooling is especially ineffective for students who are not so affluent, with a rising gap in test scores and academic performance between those on the highest and lowest ends of the socioeconomic spectrum.

So how can we create an effective, equitable system that gives our kids the chance they deserve? Our guest, Natalie Wexler, is here to help us find out. She’s the author of The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System–and how to Fix it. In our interview, she’s bringing attention to the serious issues facing today’s students, and how schools can start doing better by those they teach.

Natalie and I are discussing how our schools are focused on helping kids develop critical thinking skills instead of helping them build up a base of knowledge. Although this might sound like the right approach, it’s actually doing a disservice to kids all across the country! We’re also getting into why our nation’s wealth gap is so present in our education system, and discussing how you as a parent can give your kids’ education a boost.

The Crisis of Our Curriculum

Although we may not see it (or want to confront it), there are some issues that run deep through the American education system. These problems tend to affect low income students the most, but can be found in schools across the country, no matter the school’s location or price tag.These problems that are fundamentally built into our nation’s approach to teaching students! They lie in our decision to forgo teaching kids hard knowledge, self expression, and memorization, and instead teach them basic, repetitive comprehension skills.

While it’s great for kids to have strong comprehension and think critically, they need to have a foundation of knowledge, says Natalie–knowledge they’re not really getting. For example, students are taught to find the main idea of a passage, or are asked to answer questions about the contents of the reading, but rarely are they taught hard information about important topics, like historical events. They often don’t read and discuss literature, and they don’t memorize scientific terms! This is especially true for less affluent students, but a part of it rings true for schools across the country.

Natalie explains that when kids read about vikings, or pyramids, or Marie Curie, and then asked to write about those topics, they find themselves interested in learning new things. They feel intrigued by this important social science or scientific topics and feel engaged when asked to write on them-so why don’t we approach teaching this way more often instead of handing out bland passages with no memorable content? For many students, it’s because they have been marked as “behind” due to unequal access to education–and this is the ineffective way schools have attempted to help.

Why Education Isn’t Equal

For kids growing up without a lot of resources, these issues within the system are even more damaging. For kids whose parents may have never finished high school, there are quite a few extra obstacles in the way of a good education, says Natalie, and the  curriculum tends to be one of them. Often, this “skill” based approach is meant to help kids with a lower quality elementary/middle school education get up to speed, but the problem is often that they just don’t have enough knowledge-based education to begin with.

Plus, kids who are raised in better funded schools or with highly educated parents are usually given more intellectually complex texts to read. As Natalie says in the episode, knowledge is like velcro, and as kids read more sophisticated work, they become capable of understanding even more complicated readings–until they are able to comprehend at a very high level. Meanwhile, those who didn’t have the opportunity to read sophisticated content find themselves unable to make the same level of growth, widening the gap between rich and poor students.

Natalie explains that high school kids from low income areas often can’t even identify the U.S. on a map and may struggle to write a sentence–not because they aren’t capable of understanding that information but because the early curriculum for these students is far behind that of wealthier students. It’s our current system that’s letting them down, and it’s something that needs to change as soon as possible, says Natalie.

If you’re worried that your kid isn’t getting the education you’d hoped for, Natalie and I are talking about what you can do to look out for your kids’ learning.

Prepping You Kid For Success

If you’re concerned that your teen might not be getting the most out of school, don’t fear. Natalie and I discuss some steps you can take to give your kid a fighting chance at a good education. One of the most effective ways parents can help is by starting at-home help early on No matter how old your kid is, helping them build their knowledge and vocalize their own interpretations of material can give them a major boost. This means not just reading to or with them, but also having discussions together after!

Natalie recommends that teens do additional writing at home on the subjects they’re learning about in school. By retaining and rephrasing the knowledge they’ve gaine and using their own voice to dissect its meaning, they are gaining the ability to process ideas critically and express themselves–a priceless skill for making their way in the world. If you can, Natalie suggests finding a tutor as well! Tutors can provide supplemental assignments and guidance to kids, bringing a personal, one on one approach that’s especially helpful to kids who have fallen behind.

You might be wondering, how can I find out more about the curriculum at my kid’s school? Unfortunately, as Natalie and I discuss, this is harder than it should be. Most schools don’t have a place where the state-mandated or even school-specific curriculums are shared publicly. In fact, at some schools, there is no curriculum at all, and teachers are expected to come up with their own. Natalie and I talk more on this in the episode, and how urgent it is that change emerges and more transparency is brought to our schooling system!

In the Episode…

There’s a lot we still have to learn about education…but Natalie is here to help. On top of the topics discussed above, we also cover:

  • Why we should start teaching history to younger kids
  • What happens when you “personalize” education
  • Why memorization can be a great learning tool
  • How the common core misses the mark
  • Why we shouldn’t waste time arguing about what to teach kids

Natalie had great insights into our education system and I’m excited to share her thoughts on the problems and potentials solutions with you! If you liked this episode, you can find more about Natalie on her “Guest Bio” tab and search for “education” on our sight to find more of our episodes on this topic.

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. When your teen complains they can’t learn something:

“It’s not that you can’t learn these things, it’s because no one has taught you these things, or at least hasn’t taught you in a way that will stick.”

Natalie Wexler

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: I just finished reading this book recently, The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System–And How To Fix It. Can you talk to me at all about what inspired this book, or where did this come from?

Natalie: Sure, I’d be happy to. Well, I had been writing about education as a journalist for a while, and I was particularly interested in what’s known as the achievement gap, this gap in test scores between essentially kids at the upper and lower ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. And what I thought, and what a lot of people thought, is that the real problem is high school, that that’s where everything seems to fall apart. We appear to be making progress at lower grade levels, but then something happens when kids get to high school.

Natalie: And what I found really was explained to me, eventually, I can’t say I figured this out by myself, is that the problems that become so apparent in high school have their roots in the way we teach elementary school, and a lot of that progress that seems to be happening to some extent in elementary school is really illusory and is planting the seeds of failure in high school because we are spending enormous amounts of time on reading comprehension “skills,” like finding the main idea, or making inferences, and the theory is that kids just need to get really good at those things, doesn’t really matter what they’re reading or whether they’re acquiring any substantive knowledge, but cognitive scientists have known for a long time that that’s really not the way reading comprehension works, that in fact what’s really important isn’t some general skill at finding the main idea, but how much knowledge you have relating to the topic, and I would also say how much general academic knowledge and vocabulary you have.

Natalie: That’s what’s going to be the prime determinant of your ability to understand written texts, and so what we should be doing in elementary school is immersing kids in academic knowledge, which by the way, they really prefer to just practicing finding the main idea day after day, and then when they get to high school they’ll have the background knowledge, they’ll have the vocabulary to access what they’re supposed to be accessing at a high school level. Right now we are holding them accountable for knowledge to which we have denied them access, which is not really fair.

Andy: So talk to me about the title of your book here, says it’s about the hidden cause of America’s broken education system. So how do we know it’s broken, and what’s broken about it?

Natalie: Well, there’s lots of evidence that it’s broken, especially for kids who are less privileged. Essentially if your parents are not highly educated, you have less opportunity to acquire academic knowledge and vocabulary at home. So really that’s the central thing, it’s just that that measure, education, is highly correlated with class and race, and so it really looks like a class issue, or a racial issue, but it is, primarily, I would say, an issue of parental level of education. I would say even for the kids who are doing well in the system, it’s not serving them as well as it could because there’s a lot of wasted time and a lot of boredom involved.

Natalie: But especially for those kids who are in the more vulnerable position, we have lots of evidence that they are not doing as well on standardized tests, for example, and we no longer really have the problem of standardized tests being culturally biased. We’re not asking questions about playing polo, or whatever, or yachting, it is really, do you have the academic knowledge background to read and understand those test passages and answer those questions? We keep thinking that this is a skills problem because it looks like that’s what the tests are assessing, read this passage that you’ve never read before and find the main idea, so it looks like it’s testing not knowledge, but the skill of finding the main idea. In fact, if you don’t have the knowledge to understand the passage, you don’t get a chance to demonstrate your skill at finding the main idea. And it has been said that these tests are really knowledge tests in disguise, and that’s the hidden part. We think this is a problem of skills, but it is fundamentally a problem of knowledge.

Andy: One thing you point out that I found really interesting was you talk about how high school students are lacking a sense of chronology in terms of maybe confusing things like the Civil War and civil rights movements, and when things happen in relation to each other, I thought that really rang true to me in my education. Just like learning all of these things throughout elementary, middle, and high school that you lack a firm grasp of how they relate to one another, just all these different things are thrown at you.

Natalie: Yeah, and I’d say that there are two basic reasons, well three basic reasons, and one especially in the last 20 years is we’re just not spending much time, at certainly the elementary and often at the middle school level, on social studies or history at all, so it’s just not being taught. But then beyond that there are a couple of other issues. I think one is that there’s a general disdain for having kids memorize things and just retain them in long-term memory, dates and events, and the idea is that’s boring and unnecessary. But in fact that is the foundation for understanding things and for being able to think critically and analytically about things, is if you have that factual information and long-term memory.

Natalie: And then the last problem is that we have long assumed that history is a developmentally inappropriate topic for kids below the age of third or fourth grade. There’s no scientific basis for that, and it is a huge wasted opportunity. The longer you wait to introduce history, the harder it is for kids to really get what it’s all about, and to think about it at the deeper levels that we want them to think about it. First and second graders are perfectly capable of understanding stories about history, they are not maybe going to get every nuance, but it’s really important to start there so that when they do get to high school or middle school, they have that background to draw on, that sense of what the past is, and maybe they did hear about the Civil War and they did hear about the civil rights movement, and so they can tell them apart.

Natalie: But we have college students, I mean there are videos on the internet, I cite one of them at least in the book, of college students who don’t know the difference between the Civil War and the civil rights movement, who don’t know who won the Civil War, have no idea what century it took place in. And it’s not just the Civil War, they don’t know what country we won our independence from, and these are at a reputable college. So this is really a problem, it is most acute with kids from less educated families, but it is a widespread problem across the board.

Andy: You just talked briefly about this earlier, but you really use a term that I thought was really helpful in the book, and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about it, it’s called the Matthew Effect. What is that, and how does that work?

Natalie: Yeah, well Matthew Effects is a general term that I think sociologists use, but it has a particular meaning in the education context. The Matthew comes from the Gospel of St. Matthew, and the part that can be rendered in modern terms as, “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” And what it refers to when reading is kids who start out with, well first of all two things, the ability to just read words, to decode words, which is also hugely important, which we also unfortunately do a very poor job of teaching, for the most part. But also the background knowledge to understand what they’re reading, so those are the two basic components of reading, you have to be able to read the words and understand them.

Natalie: So kids who start out with more of that background knowledge that enables them to understand what they’re reading, we have this system, we have this leveled reading system where we let those kids read more sophisticated texts because they can, and it’s not that that background knowledge just helps you understand what you’re reading, it also helps you retain new information from what you’re reading, because you have more space and cognitive capacity for that. So they’re reading more sophisticated books, they also, it’s been said that knowledge is like Velcro, it sticks best to other related knowledge, so they also have that-

Andy: Yeah, you can create more of those links to existing knowledge that just make facts so much easier to learn.

Natalie: Right, so they have more of that other half of the Velcro, and so they acquire new information, new vocabulary, and that in turn enables them to read even more sophisticated texts, and et cetera. So it’s a virtuous cycle for them, but for the kids who start out with less academic knowledge and vocabulary, first of all they’re limited to simpler books because that’s thought to be how they’re going to acquire those comprehension skills, they just practice on easy to read books. And so they’re being exposed to less information, but they also have less of that other half of the Velcro to retain whatever new information and vocabulary there is in those books.

Natalie: And so what happens is that every year that goes by that gap between those two groups, the “good readers and the poor readers,” gets larger, and by the time they get to high school, it can be quite large and almost impossible to narrow. So that’s why it’s so important to start early. Not that it’s impossible to do anything at the high school level, it is possible, but it’s just a lot harder, it’s really so much easier if we start building knowledge early.

Andy: So what does that actually look like at the middle school and high school level? What does the gap look like at that point?

Natalie: I’ve talked to teachers in high poverty high schools, and often this focus on reading and math and reading comprehension skills continues through middle school in schools where test scores are low, because the theory is we want to boost those readings where, so we need to work on those reading skills, and they cut out social studies and they cut out science and art, which unfortunately those are the subjects that have the most potential to build academic knowledge and vocabulary because they’re rich in content. So what can happen is kids get to high school without ever having had systematic exposure to history or science, et cetera, and they’re expected to read high school level textbooks.

Natalie: I’ve talked to teachers at high poverty high schools, I’ve volunteered in some, and I know there are kids at all levels of ability, but it’s not uncommon to have kids come into high school who are missing very basic information about the world, like the difference between a city and a state, or a country and a continent, who can’t find the United States on a map of the world, or their hometown on a map of the United States. I live in Washington DC, and I have talked to teachers here at all grade levels who have told me, and I’ve seen this, if you ask a kid to find where they live, Washington DC, on a map of the United States, they’ll look around and they may well point to Washington State, because they have no idea. And it’s not because they can’t learn these things, it’s because no one has taught them these things, or at least hasn’t taught them in a way that will stick.

Natalie: I’ve also talked to parents of kids who are in AP US history classes at fairly elite high schools, and they’ve heard from teachers that those kids too lack a sense of chronology, grappling with just some sort of what came first, the Civil War or the War of 1812, and that’s because we haven’t focused enough on getting them to understand that in a way that is sticky. And there are ways to do that, there were definitely, and one of the things that I’ve discovered is there’s been a lot of research by cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists on how people learn. There are things that they have come across, there are findings that would really help teachers and students, but teachers don’t learn about those things in their training, or even on the job, and so because of that their jobs are much harder than they should be.

Andy: It strikes, me after reading through all of this, about how comprehension relies so heavily on background knowledge about the topic that you’re reading, how helpful it is to read, and read broad variety of subjects and topics, and different authors with different viewpoints. And I wonder, I think kids are spending a lot of time on digital media, but reading is always just such a crucial activity for kids, I guess. How else can we just help teenagers to get more background knowledge, or is it just about encouraging them to read more? Or are there different activities that we can be doing with them?

Natalie: I think yes, I think it’s going to depend to some extent on the kid and how much background knowledge they’re missing, but I think parents, if they start early there are lots of things they can do. We hear a lot about reading aloud to kids, but reading aloud and having discussions is what’s really important, talking about what you’ve read, and also sticking with a topic for a couple of weeks maybe. If your child is interested in a topic, find several books on that topic to either read together, maybe then the kid will be in a better position to read independently once he or she has familiarity with the topic.

Andy: Totally, yeah.

Natalie: Once kids get to the high school level it’s a little more difficult. Little kids are just so curious about things, so it’s not much of a challenge to get them to learn stuff. I think teenagers are more likely to say, “Well, what does that have to do with me?” Or, “I’m not interested in that.”

Andy: Yeah, apathetic.

Natalie: But I think the thing that has the most potential to work, and it’s hard for parents to do this, but it’s not impossible, if a child or a teenager is lacking background knowledge for what he or she’s supposed to be learning, the thing that can really help, first of all the two things, one is some kind of tutoring, which could just be a parent saying, “Let’s sit down and figure this out, what don’t you understand about the Civil War?” Or whatever. But the other thing that can work on a larger scale, that kind of tutoring is hard for schools to do on a large scale, and sometimes that is what is needed.

Natalie: So, the thing that can work on a larger scale is teaching kids explicitly, in a manageable way, to write about the content they are trying to learn. That can be very powerful, but the problem is we also, in addition to not doing a great job of teaching reading and building knowledge, we do a very bad job of teaching writing. And it’s not teachers fault, they’re not getting trained in how to teach writing. We have really underestimated how hard it is to write, to learn to write, and we’ve just expected kids to pick it up. But if you start at the sentence level, if that’s what kids need, even if they’re in high school, and also sentences can be very powerful ways of building knowledge if they’re designed carefully, that has huge potential to boost reading comprehension, definitely to build knowledge, to fill in gaps in background knowledge, and to foster analytical thinking, because it really forces you to connect bits of information when you’re writing about something.

Andy: Yeah, and you do all this research and take different sources of information and put them together, and then have to really clarify your thoughts enough to put it into writing.

Natalie: Yeah. And I’ll just say, what is needed is a method of writing instruction that observes two principles, one is start at the sentence level, if that’s what kids need, so that they’re not overwhelmed by the difficulty we asked kindergartners to write at length, that’s really overwhelming for many of them. And secondly, the sentence level, or whatever activities, writing, you’re doing should be grounded in the content of the curriculum, the core curriculum. And there’s only one method of writing instruction I know of that observes both of those principles, and that’s called The Writing Revolution, which is the other book I coauthored with a woman named Judith Hochman, who’s a veteran educator who developed this method of writing instruction over a long teaching career.

Andy: Well, that’s one theme that I felt like I saw throughout your book, is how much we sometimes underestimate kids potential, and what they’re able to do, and there was a few times that I saw that happen in your book where teachers were really surprised, they tried it a different way and really were like, wow, the kids really handled it really superbly. And I think we do that a lot, we assume that people, or write people off, I guess, and don’t challenge them.

Natalie: Yeah, and we unnecessarily make a lot of kids feel like failures. And with writing, I mean, sometimes all it takes is giving them enough information so that they have something to write about. I mean, I was interviewing a teacher in Tennessee who, her kids, they mostly came from pretty highly educated families, but she couldn’t get them to write, they just hated writing every. That was true throughout this elementary school, she said, “We have teachers who would rather jump off a building than teach writing,” because it was so hard.

Natalie: But then they switched from this standard curriculum, which really doesn’t give kids much information, to one of these newer curricula that’s out there that really does go pretty deeply into, these were third graders and they were going into the Vikings and ancient Rome, and she said, “I thought they wouldn’t be interested in that, but they were fascinated by it.” And the other thing she noticed was that suddenly they couldn’t stop writing. They had so much they wanted to write about, they wanted to write about all the stuff they were learning. So sometimes it’s just not that complicated.

Andy: Yeah. I hear a lot of people talking about personalized learning and letting people decide for themselves what they want to learn about, but you have this great quote in here that was, “If allowed to choose my own content in elementary school, I would have become an expert in princesses and dogs, one what critic has observed.”

Natalie: Yes.

Andy: And I thought that was just a great line.

Natalie: Yes, I want to give credit where credit’s due, that that was a quote from a woman named Lisa Hansel, somebody I know, but this was something she had written, and it’s a great encapsulation of the problem with letting, especially young kids, just choose what they want to learn it, which is one interpretation of personalized learning. But the other problem is, kids can get very interested in things that they don’t know about, so therefore they can’t choose to learn about. If you don’t know about-

Andy: Which is what stuck me about what you were talking about with the Vikings, exactly, maybe you wouldn’t even have been able to choose a topic like that because you don’t even have any reference for the fact that these people existed and did these things, but you could be very interested in it.

Natalie: Yeah, absolutely. And that idea that we should just let students choose what they want to learn is one that’s been around for a long time, but even before this term personalized learning came along, and it’s part of this system of so-called reading instruction at the elementary level, kids are allowed to choose a book from a basket, choose any books you want, but it has to be, if you’re a level L, you have to go to the basket labeled level L, which those books have been determined to be easy for you to read in there. And the limitations, yeah they’re choosing in a way, but they’re not learning anything. So choice has its place, but we really elevated it to a position that’s too great for its value.

Andy: So how do you think we need to factor that into decisions on topics? We mostly need to just take it upon ourselves to introduce kids to new things that they might not be aware of and then give them just a little say in maybe fine tuning more or less emphasis here and there, something like that.

Natalie: Well yeah, I mean, I would say there should be time in the school day for kids to spend 20 minutes reading whatever they want for fun, and stuff that’s easy to read, but right now we’ve made it the centerpiece of the curriculum. And what teachers have told me is that once they do introduce topics like the Vikings, or whatever, the kids choose what they want is to read more books about that, or more books by the same author. Say they’d read a chapter book aloud, and I’ve heard of teachers going to the public library to satisfy these kids demands for more books on a topic, or we’ll book by the same author, and the public library runs out of those books because so many kids are choosing to read about this topic or this author they’ve been introduced to by the curriculum.

About Natalie Wexler

Natalie Wexler is an education writer and the author of The Knowledge Gap and the co-author of The Writing Revolution, and the author of three novels. 

Natalie is a senior contributor to the education channel on Forbes.com. Her newsletter, Minding the Gap, on Substack, is available for free. She has worked as a reporter, a Supreme Court law clerk, a lawyer, and a legal historian. Her articles and essays on education and other topics have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other publications. She has spoken on education before a wide variety of groups and appeared on a number of TV and radio shows, including Morning Joe and NPR’s On Point and 1A.

Natalie lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and has two adult children.

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