By Lisa Hansel
Advisor, Knowledge Matters
On October 5 and 6, Johns Hopkins University commemorated James Coleman’s Equality of Educational Opportunity Report (1966) with scholars and policymakers who have studied and addressed America’s persistent achievement gaps. The speakers included former United States Secretary of Education John King and Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills, OECD; their remarks may be found here. Hansel’s piece is offered in light of Coleman’s groundbreaking work.
Imagine that scientists discover a cure for cancer. The treatment regimen is complex, but doable: For several years, teams of health care professionals must coordinate their efforts and stick to the long-term plan, even as they respond to differences in patients’ short-term needs.Outcomes are not identical, because of people’s underlying health differences, but virtually everyone who gets the full treatment goes on to live a longer, more enjoyable life. There’s just one catch: Hospitals are rated on short-term outcomes, so resources are not allocated to the multi-year planning needed to accomplish outstanding long-term results.
This isn’t just a thought exercise. It’s a pretty accurate summary of the state of affairs with reading comprehension.
Cognitive scientists and reading researchers have found—quite definitively—that (1) basic skills plus a massive foundation of knowledge drive reading comprehension, and (2) most children who struggle to become strong readers have mastered the skills but not yet amassed sufficient knowledge.
Here’s how Harvard professor Nonie K. Lesaux sums up the issue:
Skills-based competencies are those that allow students to master the mechanics of reading. They are highly susceptible to instruction, are learned in the primary grades by the average student, and for the great majority of students are not a lasting source of difficulty…. Knowledge-based competencies, by contrast, must be developed over many years and are key sources of lasting individual individual differences in reading ability.
Nell K. Duke, of the University of Michigan, and Meghan Block, of Central Michigan University, have been even more direct:
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to improving primary-grade reading is a short-term orientation toward instruction and instructional reform. When the aim is to show reading improvements in a short period of time, spending large amounts of time on word-reading skill and its foundations, and relatively little on comprehension, vocabulary, and conceptual and content knowledge, makes sense…. Yet the long-term consequences of failing to attend to these areas cannot be overstated.