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The Early Grades Are the Key to Equalizing Opportunity

Today's guest blog is written by Lisa Hansel from the Core Knowledge Foundation.  It is a response to Peter DeWitt's December 4th post Curriculum Wars: What Should All Children Learn?

In his December 4th post, Peter DeWitt asked one of the most important questions in education: "how do we level the playing field across schools?" It's a question virtually all educators are passionate about, believing in education as the primary means of equalizing opportunity.

Disparities in children's home lives and in the knowledge and skills they begin and complete school with are well established. As explained by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), "A prime difference in children's early experience is in their exposure to language, which is fundamental in literacy development and indeed in all areas of thinking and learning.

On average, children growing up in low-income families have dramatically less rich experience with language in their homes than do middle-class children: They hear far fewer words and are engaged in fewer extended conversations. By 36 months of age, substantial socioeconomic disparities already exist in vocabulary knowledge, to name one area.... Moreover, due to deep-seated equity issues present in communities and schools, such early achievement gaps tend to increase rather than diminish over time" (page 2, see original for endnotes).

NAEYC continues,

"Even when children with limited vocabulary manage to acquire basic decoding skills, they still often encounter difficulty around grade 3 or 4 when they begin needing to read more advanced text in various subjects. Their vocabulary deficit impedes comprehension and thus their acquisition of knowledge necessary to succeed across the curriculum" (page 7, see original for endnotes).

Clearly, closing these gaps in language and vocabulary is essential to equalizing opportunity. Given the urgency, NAEYC is direct:

"To shrink the achievement gap, then, early childhood programs need to start early with proactive vocabulary development to bring young children whose vocabulary and oral language development is lagging--whatever the causes--closer to the developmental trajectory typical of children from educated, affluent families" (page 7, see original for endnotes).

Then NAEYC is blunt: "Meeting children where they are is essential, but no good teacher simply leaves them there" (page 10, see original for endnotes).

All of these quotes come from NAEYC's 2009 position statement on developmentally appropriate practice. This 2009 statement is significantly different from the original version NAEYC published in 1986. Much has been learned since then, and NAEYC is to be applauded for keeping up with the exciting and rapidly changing field of cognitive development.

Sadly, the same can't be said of all teacher preparation or professional development programs. Many still present an outdated view of child development, not realizing how quickly children can proceed from the concrete to the abstract, from themselves and their environments to peoples from dramatically different times and places.

As psychology professor Daniel Willingham has explained, "no content is inherently developmentally inappropriate." He continues,

"If a child, or even the whole class, does not understand something, you should not assume that the task you posed was not developmentally appropriate. Maybe the students are missing the necessary background knowledge. Or maybe a different presentation of the same material would make it easier to understand."

After an extensive explanation, which you can read for free in the summer 2008 issue of American Educator, he concludes,

"If you wait until you are certain that the children will understand every nuance of a lesson, you will likely wait too long to present it. If they understand every nuance, you're probably presenting content that they've already learned elsewhere."

Like NAEYC's 2009 statement and the Common Core State Standards, Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) is based on newer research on children's abilities--and on the necessity of building knowledge and vocabulary as quickly as possible in the early grades.

Ever since CKLA was piloted in New York City a few years ago, reactions have been mixed. Despite the pilot showing CKLA students significantly outperforming comparison students in reading skills and in knowledge of science and social studies, some educators have wondered if CKLA is developmentally inappropriate.

CKLA's unique structure allows it to build broad knowledge and academic vocabulary in an appropriate way. In the early grades, CKLA is split into two strands, the Skills strand and the Listening & Learning strand. Skills is where you'll find decoding and encoding instruction, decodable student texts, and other features of any solid phonics program. If you want to see what CKLA expects young children to read, look at the Skills strand.

In Listening & Learning, you'll find teacher read-alouds on specific topics, class discussions, and projects. If you want to see what subject-matter knowledge CKLA expects young children to become familiar with, look to the Listening & Learning strand. It is filled with rich content intentionally selected to narrow the knowledge and vocabulary gap.

But notice that I wrote become familiar with, not learn or study or memorize.

Children do learn a great deal, but that learning is low pressure and conversational; children are not expected to understand and retain every detail of every read-aloud. The focus is on building a foundation of knowledge that becomes elaborated and nuanced in subsequent read-alouds and subsequent grades.

That said, CKLA does start with the child. The first topic in preschool is All About Me. The content quickly builds out from the child to families and communities, then animals, plants, and habitats. In kindergarten, knowledge is extended by teaching about children, families, and communities in different historical contexts, including among Native Americans and Colonial Towns and Townspeople. As you can see from studying the sequence of topics presented from preschool through fifth grade, the content is developmentally appropriate because it carefully builds within and across grades.

The sequence of topics reveals obvious connections, such as moving from Plants, Farms, and Native Americans to our New Nation and the Civil War to Immigration and Fighting for a Cause. There are also not-so-obvious connections, such as first graders learning about the phases of the moon in Astronomy and second graders reviewing the moon's phases when they study the Chinese New Year at the end of Early Asian Civilizations.

Carefully sequencing the read-alouds in each topic and the topics themselves is essential for building knowledge and vocabulary in a developmentally appropriate way, but does create a problem: It is very hard for children who have not had CKLA in prior grades. Starting CKLA in preschool or kindergarten works great. Starting in grade 1 is manageable, but some of the kindergarten Listening & Learning content needs to be pulled in to provide background knowledge (and some children also need kindergarten decoding and encoding lessons from the Skills strand). But it is extremely difficult for most children to start CKLA in grade 2 or later because they do not have the necessary background knowledge or skills.

When children experience all of CKLA, they truly enjoy the content. Angela Logan-Smith, principal of PS/MS 333, the Goldie Maple Academy in Queens, where 77 percent of students qualify for free lunch, explained in a recent blog post that her students love it:

By listening to and discussing texts that teachers read aloud, [second graders] learned about Asia's two most populous countries, India and China. They heard about the importance of the Indus, Yellow, and Yangtze rivers, as well as basic ideas of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Students were well prepared for and excited about this domain because it extended things they learned in CKLA's Early World Civilizations domain in first grade. Last year, they were introduced to farming, the initial creation of cities and government structures, how religious beliefs helped shape cultures, and the development of writing.

Is this a lot for young children to do? Absolutely--and they love it! Learning about ancient China is no more difficult than learning about Star Wars--and there's no question that children all over America know plenty about that. Inside the CKLA classroom, the children's tasks are well within their capabilities: listening to the teacher, looking closely at pictures, asking questions, discussing similarities and differences, drawing pictures, and (at varying levels) writing about the things the class has discussed....

Children get engaged in ideas and love to do projects to extend their learning. Teachers love this too; it gives them a chance to pursue their students' interests in creative ways.... After completing CKLA's Fighting for a Cause domain, a second grade class wanted to learn even more about all of the civil rights leaders they had just studied. They worked in small groups to select a leader from the domain--Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary McLeod Bethune, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., or Cesar Chavez--to research. Each student took a specific, manageable topic, such as the leader's childhood or one important event; studied teacher-selected books, websites, and videos to make notes from each source; and then gave a short speech.

These students sound a lot like Heidi Cole's in rural North Carolina. Yet, Ms. Cole understands teachers' concerns. Reflecting on CKLA, she wrote, "Before moving to a Core Knowledge school, I would never have believed that children would be capable of learning about these sophisticated topics at such a young age, much less enjoy doing so." Today, Ms. Cole students have the benefit of the full CKLA program, and are thriving:

For the past seven years of my 13-year teaching career, I have educated second graders using the Core Knowledge curriculum. With confidence, I can say that I have not only 'taught' my students about ancient China, the War of 1812, Westward Expansion, and the Civil War, but my students have truly 'learned' something about these topics....

For too long now, educators have underestimated what children are capable of learning and content has been watered down. In a time when many elementary schools are denying students access to geography, history, and science, Core Knowledge provides a refreshing approach to education. How wonderful that during our literacy time, children hear stories about Confucius, rather than a fictional wise man. How great that students learn about the building of the transcontinental railroad, instead of reading a random story about trains....

By the time my students enter fifth and sixth grades, they may not remember every detail of ancient China's history, or the battles fought during the Civil War, but they will certainly possess enough background knowledge at that point to take their learning to a whole new level.

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The opinions expressed in Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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