The most reliable predictor of future academic achievement for American students about to enter high school is the eighth-grade reading test administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), widely considered the “gold standard” in standardized testing. If children don’t reach reading proficiency by the eighth grade, they’ll almost always hit a wall in other subjects, and they’re unlikely to catch up in the next four years. By that standard, the educational prospects for most of New York City’s 1 million public school students are dismal: only 21 percent of the city’s eighth-graders reached the proficiency level on the 2009 NAEP reading test. (The tests take place every two years; the 2011 results will come out this autumn.) Even more ominously, no more than 12 percent of the city’s black eighth-graders achieved proficiency.
Over the past decade, Gotham’s education department has tried several reform initiatives to boost reading scores, including giving cash bonuses to teachers and principals and paying minority children to show up in class and behave. These financial incentives had no discernible effect on eighth-graders’ reading performance. Yet there is a ray of reading hope in the city: the Core Knowledge Language Arts Program, a new reading program being piloted in ten elementary schools in the Bronx and Queens.
The program derives from the research of E. D. Hirsch, Jr., founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation and author of Cultural Literacy and other seminal books (see “E. D. Hirsch’s Curriculum for Democracy,” Autumn 2009). Among Hirsch’s insights is that disadvantaged kids quickly fall behind in reading because of inadequate background knowledge; therefore, imparting such knowledge in the early grades is even more important than conveying basic reading skills. Noting that SAT reading scores nose-dived in the 1960s and have remained flat ever since, Hirsch blames the nation’s education schools. “Our teachers and administrators are taught brilliant slogans like ‘rote regurgitation of mere facts’ which make factual knowledge sound objectionable,” Hirsch writes, “and they are told that a deeper, better approach is the ‘how-to’ scheme of education. Don’t give students a fish; teach them how to fish. Don’t tell them what to think, teach them critical thinking skills. Don’t teach them factoids, teach them comprehension strategies.” To the contrary, it is precisely the accumulation of facts—whether in history, science, the arts, or civics—that enables young readers to move from the foundational skill of decoding the written words of the English language (that is, phonics) to a deeper comprehension of complex texts.
Fourth-grade reading scores around the country improved somewhat over the past decade, thanks to greater emphasis on phonics and word decoding in the early grades—a development for which the 2002 No Child Left Behind law was partly responsible. But Hirsch could see that the effect wore off by the eighth grade, as children had to show greater comprehension of more difficult texts. What was missing, he believed, was greater attention in the early grades to building students’ background knowledge. So Hirsch and his foundation created a reading program for the early grades that contained the necessary phonics drills as well as the background knowledge that students need to improve their reading comprehension.
Joel Klein, at the time New York City’s schools chancellor, became a late admirer of Hirsch’s ideas, providing a blurb for Hirsch’s 2009 book The Making of Americans. Perhaps Klein was recoiling from the failures of the “balanced literacy” approach to reading prevalent in the city’s schools, which consists of very little phonics and even less background knowledge. So Klein introduced the Core Knowledge reading program in the ten elementary schools as a three-year experiment, starting in September 2008, and provided crucial financial support through the nonprofit Fund for New York Schools, which the chancellor effectively controls. To monitor the experiment, Klein matched the ten Core Knowledge schools with a demographically similar group of schools that used the “balanced literacy” program; city-commissioned studies would compare the two student cohorts’ reading results.
After the first year, Klein called a press conference to announce the study’s results: on a battery of reading tests, the kindergartners in the Core Knowledge program had achieved gains five times greater than those of students in the control group. The second-year study showed that the Core Knowledge kids, now in first grade, made reading gains twice as great as those of students in the control group. The results of the third-year study, now that the children have completed second grade, won’t be announced until sometime this autumn, probably at about the same time as the 2011 NAEP reading results are made public. It’s probable that the Core Knowledge program will continue to show promising results, while scores on the NAEP eighth-grade reading test will be as stagnant as ever.
If that’s the case, the rational course of action would be to keep funding the Core Knowledge pilot program until its cohort of students reaches the eighth grade and aces the NAEP test, showing the education authorities that the solution to the city’s reading problem is in plain sight. Unfortunately, rationality is usually in short supply at the Department of Education; Klein has moved on, and it’s not clear whether Hirsch’s reading program remains on the department’s agenda. Right now, there’s no guaranteed funding for continuation of the program. Keeping this potential breakthrough alive would cost a mere $300,000 per year—which seems a smarter investment than the $70 million paid in bonuses to teachers and principals who produced zero reading gains.