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When remote learning started up this spring, a number of school districts initially forbade teachers from introducing new content in an effort to prevent achievement gaps from widening. Instead of teaching new knowledge, teachers were told to focus on maintaining previously learned skills. In subjects like reading, this focus on skills over content has long been the norm. Indeed, “teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” was the operating theory most schools followed long before the pandemic struck. But what if schools have it all wrong? What if it’s not a disparity in skills that’s behind the achievement gap, but a disparity in knowledge? That’s the argument that Natalie Wexler makes in her book, The Knowledge Gap: The hidden cause of America’s broken education system — and how to fix it.
Wexler joined Nat Malkus on The Report Card last year to explain why background knowledge—the sort of thing many schools stopped teaching back in March—is more critical to reading comprehension than disembodied skills.
Also joining was Ashley Berner, whose team at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy developed a tool to help districts map the knowledge their curriculum gives students so that they can better identify gaps.
As policymakers and educators think about how to address the gaps that have been widened by the COVID-19 shutdown, it’s crucial that they understand what’s driving those gaps.
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