The growing problem with background knowledge in our schools points to a growing equity crisis

This morning’s blog scan kicked up a couple of interesting data points that I highlighted in my Facebook feed.

First, a link to an article in The Atlantic about Finland’s school success, which is the current rage in education reform debate:

Go read it, to acquire the needed prior knowledge for this discussion (unless you’re a teacher or school reform activist already, in which case you’re already aware of the issue).

In summary, Finland focused on equity.  That’s a key.

Second piece: this article about a longer school day:

Again, go read, because I’m just going to do a quick summary: one side says longer hours for content enhancement, the other says afterschool programs for enrichment.

Okay.  Taking these two pieces into account, I’m going to build on the mixture of these two articles.

One problem other teachers and I are seeing (amongst others, but this is a big one) in today’s student population is a lack of wide-ranging, prior knowledge (or background knowledge for those not in the educational buzzword circuit) about the world in general.  Eight years of an increasingly intense focus on the need for performing well on high-stakes assessments of reading and math has narrowed instruction to the degree that students do not get the degree of exposure to general information about the world and the society around them that they used to get in elementary and middle schools.  Add the current economic problems which have led to many parents needing to work multiple jobs as they struggle to provide for a family as the economy crashes around them, and even the families who have tried to provide enrichment for their kids can no longer provide this background knowledge.  Schools used to pick up this enrichment gap for those with low incomes but with the increasing focus on meeting AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) on high-stakes assessment, the focus has become primarily reading and math, especially in those early grades where in the past skill acquisition and foundation building in many areas, including fine motor skills, social skills, citizenship skills, and general exposure to the arts were provided.

We’re seeing the results now.  It ain’t pretty.

Think I’m exaggerating?  I’m not.

Part of my job involves the administration of academic diagnostic assessments, specifically a particular battery of tests known as The Woodcock Johnson III NU Tests of Achievement.  The WJ III Achievement battery is a normed (that means it’s been tested on a large number of subgroups, racial, cultural, gender and economic) and updated regularly.  It’s considered to be a valid and reliable measure of student academic achievement (that is, results are consistent and it measures what it’s supposed to measure).  But…it still requires a certain degree of prior knowledge.

Here’s one thing I’ve noticed, over eight years of administering this battery to students with similar levels of academic specific learning disabilities (that is, disabilities in reading, writing and math):

Students are scoring lower on basic information we take for granted they should know at this age about how the world works.

I’m not talking complicated stuff.  I’m talking things like the order of the months and days of the week (being deliberately vague here because otherwise I give away test specifics).  Things that used to be considered as the basics of civic knowledge.  Questions which assume a certain degree of knowledge about science and social studies that middle school students should have.

Why is this happening?  The usual culprit that gets blamed is overdependence on technology.  But technology can’t explain away everything.  One advantage I have now is that I have worked with some families long enough to see the changes imposed on otherwise strong, supportive, enrichment-oriented families by the economy.  The family that had the time to build external background knowledge in their child with learning problems by enrolling them in summer classes or taking them on expeditions now can’t because there’s no money for such things and the school doesn’t have money to provide that exposure, either.  The family that had time to work with a child struggling with reading or math facts at home, or assist with homework, now doesn’t have the time to do that because parents are busy working multiple jobs.  The family that otherwise would provide guidance about what is and isn’t appropriate behavior and that The Hangover is not an appropriate middle school movie isn’t there to do it (Seriously.  I have had students ask if we could watch it at school.  Headdesk.  Headdesk.  Headdesk.  And this is from kids whose families I KNOW would be mortified if they knew what their kid was saying).

I’m rambling now, and I need to get going on other things since this is an informal blog post and not a full, formal argument.  I’ll probably come back to this issue again formally, if not here then somewhere else.  But I see a huge crisis coming toward us in education that we are as of yet not willing to admit to in the US, and it is the degree to which more and more students, even from what we would call “good families,” are suffering from this contraction of student background knowledge because we aren’t providing it in the schools and fewer families are able to provide it for their students.  The affluent students get it.  But this contraction within the schools cuts off opportunities for the less-affluent…and leads to the further decline of the middle class and a growing socioeconomic stratification of our population.

More on this at a future date.

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