Brown v. the Board of Education was an iconic case that was supposed to be a beacon of hope. In America, every child, no matter what their background, would be given the opportunity to use a high quality public education as their path out of poverty. The suit, which was upheld by the Supreme Court, was intended to dismantle a dual system of education, one where it is unconstitutional to run two different school systems. At the time, there was one system serving economically privileged and often predominantly white children and a system of schools reserved for the underserved, mostly students of color, living in poor neighborhoods.
Decades later the question remains. Have we made good on the promise of Brown v. The Board of Education?
A report released last spring by they U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicates that we have not.
“The percentage of K-12 public schools in the United States with students who are poor and are mostly Black or Hispanic is growing and these schools share a number of challenging characteristics. From school years 2000-01 to 2013-14 (the most recent data available), the percentage of all K-12 public schools that had high percentages of poor and Black or Hispanic students grew from 9 to 16 percent, according to GAO’s analysis of data from the Department of Education.
These schools were the most racially and economically concentrated: 75 to 100 percent of the students were Black or Hispanic and eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—a commonly used indicator of poverty. Even more troubling, the GAO’s analysis of Education data also found that compared with other schools, schools in impoverished neighborhoods offered disproportionately fewer math, science, and college preparatory courses.
Does this indicate a trend toward lowered expectations for students in underserved communities? After all, these are the courses that deliver content through the use of complex texts, something many educators say is what leads to success in college and career.
Fidelity to the program resulted in reading gains that were five times greater than those experienced by students taught via other reading strategies
The Common Core standards are meant to address the issue of lowered expectations and so far, the more stringent standards have led to a slight uptick in achievement for underserved students. A new release of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) contains a review of research stressing the importance of students being able to read complex texts. Appendix A states that “while the complexity of reading demands for college, career, and citizenship have held steady or risen over the past half century, the complexity of texts students are exposed to has steadily decreased in that same interval.”
Research indicating the effectiveness of introducing higher literacy standards is not new. In a bid to correct what some called the “knowledge deficit” among New York City public school students in 2010, then Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein implemented a pilot program to overhaul how children in 10 city schools would be taught to read.
The program, called the New York City Core Knowledge Early Literacy Project, was funded with $2.4 million in private donations raised by the Fund for Public Schools. It ran for three years, following kindergarteners at 10 participating schools through the first and second grade. The pilot curriculum was heavily focused on content knowledge, phonics and non-fiction books. The program was based on the belief that when students struggle with reading comprehension in elementary school, middle school and beyond, a large part of the problem is that they lack basic knowledge in subjects like history, science and literature early in their school journey.
The curriculum was developed by E. D. Hirsch Jr.’s Core Knowledge Foundation, the author of “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,” a book that became quite controversial after its publication in 1987. Although Mr. Hirsch is a liberal, his ideas were attacked as neoconservative.
The pilot program was a departure from the so-called balanced literacy approach, a method that the Bloomberg administration favored. Under the balanced literacy approach, children are encouraged to select books from classroom libraries that interest them and are at their own reading levels, meaning that in any given classroom, every child may be reading a different book. Critics say that it’s an approach that tends to be less effective in low-performing schools and in places with relatively inexperienced teachers. The approach based on the work of E.D. Hirsch’s “core knowledge” pedagogy stresses nonfiction reading, content knowledge, and decoding skills, and introduces complex texts for students to grapple with.
There were 10 schools participating in the Core Knowledge Early Literacy pilot project and at the end of three years the results were compelling. According to project reports, through early reading instruction and content-rich “read-alouds,” all students—low-income students specifically—gained the “core” common knowledge needed to navigate society.
The pilot reading program tracked 1,000 students in twenty low-income schools in New York City. Ten implemented E.D. Hirsch’s “core knowledge” pedagogy, stressing nonfiction reading, content knowledge, and decoding skills, while the other ten employed reading strategies of the “balanced literacy” sort. Besides tracking scores on pre- and post-tests, the study gathered teacher and administrator survey data and conducted site visits at four CKLA schools, confirming teachers’ fidelity to the Core Knowledge program.
CKLA students across all studied grades (Kindergarten through second) boasted larger gains than their comparison-group peers, and students with lower base achievement saw larger gains. Core Knowledge had the greatest impact on Kindergarteners; fidelity to the program resulted in reading gains that were five times greater than those experienced by students taught via other reading strategies. Likewise, Core Knowledge students scored higher on science and social studies content-based tests than those using other reading strategies.
After three years of positive results—and gains made since the implementation in New York State of the Common Core, which also favors Core Knowledge-like reading instruction—it seems logical that we should provide complex text literacy interventions as early as possible, for ALL students.