In early April 2023, I started getting emails and messages urging me to take a look at a fresh reading study in Colorado. The study, a working paper that has not yet been peer-reviewed, came to two dramatic conclusions. The first was that elementary school students who attended “Core Knowledge” schools – which teach young children a broad core curriculum in many subjects – were better readers. Their reading scores in third through sixth grades indicate that these children were not only above average at deciphering the words on the page but were better at understanding and analyzing what they were reading. Even more surprising was the finding that the reading gains were so large for low-income students that they would eliminate the achievement gap between rich and poor children.
The nine authors, most of whom hail from the University of Virginia, issued a press release trumpeting it as the first long-term study of a knowledge-rich curriculum and the first to show outsized gains on state assessments. They said the gains were large enough to catapult U.S. reading achievement from 15th place among 50 nations on an international reading test of fourth graders to the top five. Robert Pondiscio, writing on the website of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, called it “compelling evidence” for the theories of University of Virginia English professor emeritus E.D. Hirsch, who developed the curriculum used in these schools and whose 1987 book Cultural Literacy inspired the common core standards movement in American education. Journalist Natalie Wexler, author of the 2019 book “The Knowledge Gap,” said the study ought to spark a re-evaluation of the usual approach to reading comprehension in schools, which frequently focuses on skills, such as asking students to find the main idea and make inferences. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum teaches skills too, but it places more emphasis on expanding children’s knowledge of the world, from Greek mythology to the solar system.
For advocates of building children’s general knowledge, the study is certainly positive news and an indication that this type of instruction may be beneficial. But from my perspective, it falls far short of convincing proof or vindication. For starters, the study took place at nine charter schools in Colorado, stretching from Denver to Fort Collins. It’s impossible from the study design to distinguish whether the Core Knowledge curriculum itself made the difference or if it could be attributed to other things that these charter schools were doing, such as teacher training or character education programs.
The schools catered to middle and upper income families; median family income exceeded $114,000 at three of the suburban schools. Only one of the schools had a somewhat lower income population, but median family income still exceeded $50,000 and fewer than a third of the children were living below the poverty line, not nearly as poor as many city schools. The claim of closing the achievement gap is based on only 16 students who attended this one charter school.
Researchers have long found correlations between a child’s knowledge and reading scores, but that’s not the same as proving that building knowledge first is what causes reading comprehension to flourish later. The theory – widely accepted by education researchers – is that what we grasp from what we read depends on whether we can hook it to concepts and topics that we already have some knowledge about. Laboratory studies have found that children who are familiar with a topic are better able to comprehend a new reading passage on it. In one 1987 experiment, kids who were familiar with baseball were better able to retell a story they had read about a baseball game than children who had stronger reading abilities.