07/22/2014 04:19 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2015

The Importance of Teaching Content

Quite some years ago I visited a school in Baltimore City that had raised its third-grade reading scores dramatically. I wanted to see what they were doing to be so successful -- and I was curious about why its fifth-grade scores had not improved even as its third-grade ones had.

When I got there I found a high-poverty school where the teachers were very focused on early reading instruction and had worked hard to teach kids the phonemes (the sounds found in the English language) and phonics (the sounds mapped to letters and combinations of letters) so that the kids could decode words and read fluently. I saw dedicated, hard-working teachers teaching early reading well and with verve and students who liked being in school.

As I often do when I visit a school, I randomly selected a child in one of the early grades and asked him to read to me. He happily read a folk tale set in China, fluently and with expression. I was impressed. As I walked out of his classroom with the assistant principal who was showing me around, I asked what the school did to teach kids about China -- the geography, the culture, the naming system, the flora and fauna -- in other words, the background knowledge that would help kids to understand a folk tale set in China.

Oh, the administrator said, that wasn't necessary, adding that kids learn a surprising amount of background knowledge from television.

And that's when I knew why the school's third-grade reading improvement hadn't translated into fifth-grade reading improvement.

I was seeing in action what reading researcher Jeanne Chall wrote about decades ago: the "fourth-grade slump" of poor children.

Third-grade reading tests usually consist of very simple stories and text, making them primarily tests of decoding -- which was what that school was teaching impressively well. By fourth and fifth grade, however, reading tests have more complex stories and texts that require more sophisticated vocabularies and considerable amounts of background knowledge. Kids can no longer figure out most of the words from the context of the stories; they need to actually know the words and the concepts they represent.

If schools aren't teaching kids an awful lot of content -- that is, history, science, literature, and the arts -- the same kids who do well on third-grade tests can fail later tests -- not because they can't decode the words on the tests, but because they cannot understand the words once they've decoded them. And they can't understand them because the words haven't been taught.

Some kids do arrive at school with a lot of background knowledge and rich vocabularies, usually acquired from discussions at home and a set of experiences ranging from being read to from an early age to being taken to museums. The kids with those kinds of experiences tend to be kids from educated and well-off families, which is one of the reasons that reading scores are so highly correlated with family income and mother's education.

If we are to break that correlation and ensure that all children can read and comprehend well, schools need to have coherent, content-rich curricula that systematically teach history, science, literature, and the arts. This isn't so that children will do well on fifth-grade reading tests, by the way; it's so that they can understand the world around them. Fifth-grade reading tests are just proxies for what comes next.

The idea that educators would rely on the random background knowledge kids pick up from television is misguided, which is why what that assistant principal told me almost took my breath away.

And yet I also knew that she was reflecting a widely held view among many educators that it is not necessary to systematically teach kids content. That view, which teacher Daisy Christodoulou calls a "myth of education," is the subject of her new book, Seven Myths of Education, which was adapted by the American Educator as "Minding the Knowledge Gap: The Importance of Content in Student Learning."

Christodoulou taught for several years in a high-poverty school in England without the success she desperately wanted. She describes faithfully following what she had been told in her teacher training program -- she had set up discussions, organized group projects, and encouraged individual problem solving -- many of the same kinds of things American teachers are told to do. But she did not systematically teach her high school students the content of her field (English) because she had been told that was neither necessary nor good practice.

When she discovered a large body of research in cognitive science demonstrating that people need a large store of knowledge in order to think creatively, have deep discussions, and solve problems, she wrote what amounts to a cri de coeur.

Educators who wonder why they work so hard without getting the results they hoped for will find a sympathetic ear and an introduction to many of the answers they're looking for in Christodoulou's article and book.