The Education Issue Democratic Candidates Should Be Talking About

Democratic Presidential Candidates are overlooking a basic problem in education.

Education is a hot issue in the contest among Democratic presidential hopefuls. But none of what’s been said so far gets to the root of the problem.

Most of the many current candidates have issued comprehensive policy proposals or at least staked out positions on key education issues. Their prescriptions for reform cluster around the same basic proposals, listed below. Reasonable arguments can be made for all these ideas, and compelling ones for some. But none gets at a pervasive and long overlooked problem that has hobbled efforts to improve education for decades—and, if left unaddressed, will undermine the current proposals, should they ever come to fruition.

Like most education reformers and policymakers—of either party—the Democratic candidates have failed to focus on what is actually going on in classrooms, particularly in elementary school. They might be surprised to learn that in all but a relative handful, teachers aren’t even trying to provide kids with substantive knowledge. Instead, they’re spending hours every day teaching them so-called reading comprehension skills—or trying to. The theory is that if kids master supposed skills like “finding the main idea” or “making inferences,” eventually they’ll be able to use them to glean knowledge from any text put in front of them.

But scientists who study the learning process have long understood that reading comprehension doesn’t work that way. The most important factor isn’t some generally applicable skill. It’s how much background knowledge and vocabulary you have relating to the topic. So if we want to boost kids’ reading comprehension—and their general academic performance—we need to start building their knowledge as early as possible through social studies, science, literature and the arts. That’s especially important for children from less educated families, who are the least likely to pick up that kind of knowledge at home.

Instead, though, we’ve narrowed the elementary curriculum to reading and math, especially in high-poverty schools where test scores are low. That focus often continues through middle school, with the result that many students arrive in high school with such crippling gaps in knowledge that it’s nearly impossible for them to understand high school-level material. The longer we wait to start addressing those gaps, the harder they are to fill.

This problem isn’t new, but in the past twenty years well-intentioned reform efforts have only made things worse. No Child Left Behind, enacted in 2001—and some of the measures taken by the Obama administration in its wake—intensified the focus on test scores. Because reading tests appear to assess comprehension skills, teachers have doubled down on that kind of instruction. But if students don’t have the background knowledge to understand the passages on the tests, they can’t demonstrate their skills. That has become even more of an issue since 2010, when the Common Core literacy standards or something like them were adopted in most states. The passages on tests aligned to those standards include more nonfiction, which generally assumes more background knowledge than fiction. And yet most teachers have continued focusing on comprehension “skills” rather than knowledge.

The solution, briefly, is to get more districts or schools to adopt recently developed elementary literacy curricula that build students’ knowledge of the world instead of fruitlessly trying to develop comprehension “skills.” Unless that happens, the candidates’ favorite proposals will founder in different but related ways:

·        Expanded access to preschool: Yes, we need to start building children’s knowledge and vocabulary early, and preschools using good curricula can help. But if kids go from preschool to a black hole of knowledge in elementary school, whatever gains they’ve made evaporate quickly—a phenomenon known as “preschool fadeout.”

·        Making college free or less expensive: This is a great idea—for students who graduate from high school prepared to do college-level work. But many high school graduates are required to take remedial courses when they enroll in college, and they often never graduate. Making college free without also improving K-12 education could just encourage even more ill-prepared students to enroll, resulting in an even greater waste of time and effort—and money, even if students themselves don’t bear the costs.

·        Limits on charter schools: These proposals have drawn the most attention, but they wouldn’t address this basic problem. Charters could theoretically serve as models of innovation by focusing on content at the elementary level. For the most part, though, they’ve drilled kids on comprehension “skills” just as much as traditional public schools have—if not more.

·        More funding for high-poverty schools: Money could help, but only if schools understand what to do with it. If they just use it to fund more of the same meaningless comprehension instruction, as they generally do, the money won’t make much difference. And high-quality curriculum doesn’t cost any more than low-quality curriculum, so schools could do a lot more with the resources they have now.

·        Increasing teacher salaries: Teachers in many places need and deserve more money, and teacher turnover has a negative impact on student achievement. But teachers also leave because they’re dissatisfied with their working conditions, including pressure to raise test scores; nearly half of teachers surveyed in one study said they’d considered quitting because of testing. If the current approach to elementary education continues, test scores will continue to languish—and the pressure will continue, along with teacher turnover.

It would be great if at least one of the 20 candidates who have qualified for the first Democratic debates later this week mentioned that we’re not actually teaching kids much in elementary school—and that we’re unlikely to make progress in addressing the problems plaguing our education system unless we start. But explaining that would take more than the few minutes they’ll be allotted.

Still, there’s time to get this message out before the primaries begin. There may not be a powerful constituency clamoring for this kind of reform right now. But if a candidate explains the issue well, several groups could get on board:

·        Teachers: In the few schools that have switched to a knowledge-focused curriculum, many teachers have embraced the change wholeheartedly. They say it’s the way they’ve always wanted to teach.

·        Parents: Kids don’t come home from school chattering excitedly about “making inferences” or “identifying nonfiction text structures.” But when they’re learning about the human digestive system or Greek mythology, parents are delighted by the rich conversations they can have—and how much their kids are enjoying school. With a solid foundation of knowledge, students will also be poised to succeed in later grades.

·        Employers: If schools adopt a knowledge-building approach, high school graduates will be far better equipped for the 21st-century workplace. Having a fund of knowledge and vocabulary can enable workers to understand on-the-job manuals, write coherent reports, and adapt to changing work requirements.

·        Those concerned by growing inequity: Reformers are starting to give up on education as an engine of social mobility. But it’s still our best hope for reducing inequality. The problem is that we haven’t tried to address the gap in knowledge between haves and have-nots, beginning in the early grades.

Elizabeth Warren, who famously has a plan for everything, doesn’t yet have one for K-12 education. She or some other Democratic candidate could stand out from the crowd by focusing on a vital issue everyone else has ignored for decades: our wrong-headed, self-defeating obsession with reading comprehension “skills.” And ultimately, millions of children—not to mention society as a whole—could reap enormous benefits.